Public speaks on combining schools

A Putnam County resident stands and speaks in the crowded Putnam County Board of Education meeting room Tuesday night.

An estimated 70 people attended a public hearing at the Putnam County Board of Education Tuesday night to discuss with school officials a previously recommended proposal to close two school buildings and replace them with a newly-built single facility. One fact seemed to hang in the air throughout the meeting – the unknown details.

“In the current climate, the absence of specific answers leads people to believe the worst scenario,” BOE Chairman Dr. Steve Weiner said afterwards. “Because we can’t give specifics, they believe we are hiding something; but there isn’t a conspiracy. Until we can get these specifics, that concern will not go away.”

Superintendent Eric Arena announced last week that two such hearings would be held in regard to his recommendation to close Putnam County Elementary School and Putnam County Middle School. … Students of those schools would attend a newly-constructed school, composed of grades four through eight.

Approximately 11 people signed up to speak during the hearing, but the exact number and names are not known as an administrator said immediately after the meeting that he had already shredded the list.

Those who spoke were given three minutes, and their comments were immediately responded to by the superintendent or board chairman. After those who signed up had finished, the floor was open to anyone else in the audience who had questions, and about five more people asked several questions each.

“I hope the presentation answered some of their questions,” BOE member Doris Clemons said. “For some of those questions, we really needed to have specifics, and I’m glad people showed up and asked those questions.”

BOE members Lynn Gilpin and Eugene Smith also were at the meeting; Simone Jones was not present.

The events leading up to the recommendation

The evening began with Dr. Weiner telling, “How we got to this spot.” Referring to the housing bubble when home ownership in the U.S. was peaking at an all-time high, Weiner explained that 12 years ago, the economy was booming in Putnam County, and the Putnam Board of Commissioners approved 10,000 new housing permits. This meant the Board of Education would be anticipating an enrollment growth of 7,000 students, he said, and more school facilities would be needed.

In light of this, the BOE bought two properties for which to build additional K-12 facilities – the “south campus on Pea Ridge Road,” and the “north campus on U.S. 441 near Rock Eagle.” Weiner noted he was not on the BOE at that time. Around both locations, large housing developments had been approved and were in the works. The BOE, which at that time had 2,500 students in three school buildings, went ahead and built the new high school on the north campus. They funded it with the sale of bonds, which they planned to pay back in large increments using Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax Funds, which at that time amounted to $250,000 a month from the coal purchased by Georgia Power Company at Plant Branch.

But in a few years, the housing bubble burst, the economy tanked, and then Georgia Power closed Plant Branch, which meant the school system lost the hefty monthly SPLOST revenue and had to figure out how to make those large bond payments using general budget funds.

“We have scrimped and saved to pay for those bonds, and we paid them off this past year without affecting the children’s education,” Weiner said, noting the “scrimping” meant cutting out many things, including major building maintenance.

Weiner went on to explain that the current PCMS (which is the old PCHS), is 42 years old, and some parts of PCES (the former PCMS) was built in the 1950s and 60s. The state has told them they have to renovate the buildings or close them down because they won’t be fit or safe for use, he said.

“Our responsibility is to both the students and taxpayers,” he said. “I don’t want to spend the money, but we do not have a choice. The question is, what will we get for it?”

Planning in the open means they don’t have all the answers yet, such as where will they build the new facility, Weiner said. 

“Why don’t we wait until we have all the answers?” he asked. “If we wait three to five years, we won’t have any options.”

The numbers behind the recommendation

Superintendent Arena gave the next presentation, saying he “didn’t begin this process with building a new school. We began with renovating our current facilities.”

The estimated costs of renovating PCES would be $7,717, 157, and to renovate PCMS would cost approximately $8,900,431, he said, according to figures given by RLR Architects and Engineers in Alpharetta. Subtracting the state entitlements of $3,087,936 leaves a total net cost of $13,529,652 for renovations, he said. The superintendent also figured in 10 years of operating costs on the facilities at $6,150,000, which would make that total $19,679,652.

To build a new facility, the estimated cost given was $35 million. Subtracting state entitlements of $11,200,000 leaves a net cost of $23,800,000, Arena said. He then subtracted the operating costs given above ($6.15 million), leaving a total net facility cost of $17,650,000.

The superintendent said he estimates a $715,000 savings every year from consolidating the two facilities into one. He also said that, because the BOE owns five properties (each of the current schools plus the Pea Ridge Road campus), he would not recommend going out to buy more property. He said the construction would be funded by the sale of bonds. If the BOE approves it, the bond referendum would be put to voters May 22.

The input and questions from the public

Ms. Ingram noted the public notice said the buildings would be renovated for administrative purposes, so why not do the same for students? Arena said the public notice was “a legal boiler plate.”

Ingram wanted to know how long it would take to pay back $23 million (net cost of building a new facility), to which Arena said, “It has not been decided yet.”

“Well nobody in this room wants to pay more taxes,” Ingram said, “and upgrading the current schools could be done a little at the time.

Ms. Newsome wanted a specific breakdown of the numbers of renovations done on the two buildings in the past 10 years. “Things done versus things that still need to be done,” she explained.

Arena said he had those numbers but had not put them out to the public. He said they may do that to justify the need.

“We redid the bathrooms,” he said, “but after thousands of kids use them every day, they have to be done again.” Someone asked how much unused acreage was at the current facilities and was told 26 acres at PCES and 40 acres at PCMS.

Ms. Lawson addressed the concern of bullying if fourth- through eighth-graders were put in the same facility, which brought applause from the audience.

“Just because kids go to school on the same piece of dirt doesn’t mean they will be in contact with each other,” Arena answered, adding that architects would design the building with that in mind.

A man said he has noticed the air conditioner units and lights are running at PCES even on the weekends, wasting money. Arena said the new building would have occupancy sensors so that wouldn’t happen. The resident also brought up bullying in a fourth through eighth-grade building, to which Arena said, “We need to get a handle on that no matter what building they’re in.”

Tom Thompson questioned how much of PCES built in the 50s was left and how much was newer. Arena said about 50 percent. Thompson questioned if sewerage would be a problem if all the students were put in one location. Arena said engineers would take that into consideration.

Another person expressed concern that “so much glass and chrome was put into the new high school, and that was wasted money because it was decoration. I would like to see, if we build a new school, that you cut down on the costs.”

Police Chief Kent Lawrence said, “you can build a $10 million schoolhouse or a $240 million one; it’s not going to make any difference in the education.” He noted the school needs to be in town, close to public safety facilities.

Another man wanted to know what would keep the BOE from building out on Pea Ridge, to which Arena noted the lack of sewerage would be an obstacle, and each location has obstacles the board will need to consider before making a decision.

The link to Arena’s PowerPoint presentation is https://simbli.eboardsolutions.com/Meetings/ViewMeetingOrder.aspx?S=4133&MID=67421.

The next public hearing will be at 5:45 p.m. Monday, Jan. 22, at the BOE office on Old Glenwood Springs Road.

By Lynn Hobbs, editor@msgr.com

 

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