A new, larger Southeast Bulloch High School could be ready for students in August 2024 if the Board of Education decides on that course by April 30, 2021, according to a timeline school district administrators presented last week.
A few of Bulloch County’s eight elected school board members expressed continued reservations during their work session Thursday night, March 25. Superintendent of Schools Charles Wilson acknowledged that even the three-year timeline wouldn’t be certain, given everything that has to be done.
Two weeks earlier, Wilson had suggested building a new high school and repurposing other schools as the fastest way to deal with population growth in the Southeast Bulloch attendance area. The slideshow of charts and a suggested timeline that he and Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Troy Brown set out last weeks was labeled a “tentative proposal.”
“Time is always going to be of the essence on us, and I want to make sure we are not unnecessarily dragging our feet on this,” Wilson told board members. “If possible I want to be able to provide y’all with something that’s actionable, that’s expedient to do, if that is what you are willing to do.”
He told them he wants further feedback but an April decision because “a long timeframe” is involved in building a school.
“We’re probably looking at three years from planning and deciding to actual conclusion of construction, and that doesn’t include a couple of decisions that have to be made prior to that,” Wilson said.
The three-year cycle allows one year for design of the school and two years for actual construction, Brown explained.
The last sentence in their slide show stated that if the board wants to target a school opening for the 2024-2025 school year, “a decision needs to be made no later than April 30.”
If the board makes that decision, next steps would include identifying and buying land for the new school, conducting an environmental site survey, obtaining state approval for the site and hiring an architect.
Missing “that magic window” of the August 2024 start of school would either put the school opening a year further out or present the complications of opening in the middle of a school year, Wilson said.
He has estimated that the new high school could cost $50 million to $60 million.
The Bulloch County Schools system is expected to qualify for about $8 million in state facilities construction funding through the Georgia Department of Education, Brown said. By eliminating the need for additions to some existing schools, the project could save about $7 million in spending slated in the current Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or E-SPLOST, he estimated.
So, the school system could bring about $15 million in state and existing local funding to the Southeast Bulloch High School project. The board would then propose funding the remainder of the cost through a five-year extension of the E-SPLOST in a referendum to Bulloch County voters sometime before the current tax expires at the end of 2023.
Room at all levels
Unlike adding an elementary school, which would then send more students on to the middle school and high school without increasing their capacity, Wilson’s proposal is meant to add capacity at all levels. The current high school would become Southeast Bulloch Middle School, and the current middle school a new “upper elementary.”
Although occupying an existing building, this “Southeast Bulloch Upper Elementary School” would be the one new school entity created in the shuffle. It would receive fourth- and fifth-grade students from the Brooklet, Nevils and Stilson areas.
That would leave Brooklet Elementary School, Nevils Elementary School and Stilson Elementary School, which currently have prekindergarten through fifth grade, with pre-K through third grade only, freeing up space in their existing buildings. In their enrollment and capacity projections, the administrators omitted prekindergarten, a separate lottery-funded program not included in state school facilities planning.
The tentatively proposed new Southeast Bulloch High School would have room for 1,601 students, an increase of 374 from the 1,227-student capacity of the current high school.
If and when Southeast Bulloch Middle School, with fifth, sixth and seventh grades, moves into the current high school building, it will have room for room for 1,012 students, Brown projected. He explained that because of different class-size standards, the building will accommodate fewer students as a middle school than it does as a high school.
But the current SEB Middle School theoretically has room for 864 students, so the shift would add capacity for 148 students at the middle-school level.
As the new SEB Upper Elementary School, the current middle school would have room for about 940 fourth- and fifth-graders, according to Brown’s chart.
Brooklet Elementary, with a current capacity of 780; Nevils Elementary, with a capacity of 540; and Stilson Elementary, with a capacity of 620 students, would keep those capacities unchanged, but with two fewer grade levels.
The reported capacities of the current three Southeast-area elementary schools add up to 1,940 students. With the addition of the upper elementary, the SEB area’s kindergarten through fifth-grade capacity would increase to 2,880 students.
BOE member doubts
One board member not convinced last week that an upper elementary school should be created was District 3’s Stuart Tedders, Ph.D.
“That’s bizarre to me. …,” he said of the idea of splitting the elementary grades into K-3 and 4-5 schools.
“I would love to be directed to some resources that outline that advantages and disadvantages of that type of arrangement, because it seems to me that you’re adding another whole level, you’re breaking continuity,” Tedders told Wilson.
District 4 board member April Newkirk noted similar concerns and again expressed doubts that building a new high school is the best strategy.
“I need more time, I need more data, because these are big decisions that will have a lasting impact on our community,” she said, “and again, I’m just not sure that a high school, the most expensive building that we can build, is where we need to go.”
Newkirk suggested building a new middle school instead and converting the existing middle school to a “ninth-grade academy” with specialized programs for students in the first year of high school.
But she later agreed with Wilson when he said, “The numbers don’t really work,” because this would leave the building under-utilized.
Newkirk said she wants to hear from more parents and other constituents and not just the School Capacity Balancing Committee, whose very general findings Wilson reported earlier in March. One of those findings was that redrawing school attendance zones should be done “in conjunction with” new schools or school additions, not before these are planned.
Building a new high school and converting the other schools would not require immediate rezoning and would leave “feeder patterns” intact, Wilson said. In other words, students from the Brooklet, Nevils and Stilson elementary schools would still go on to the next school together, but to the upper elementary before the middle school.
This approach would also require little if any immediate modification of the existing high school and middle school buildings before they receive the middle and upper elementary grades, respectively, Brown and Wilson assured board members.