School board looks at facility options

The board of the Simpson County School District called two special meetings prior to their regular board meeting on Jan. 9, each  with a specific purpose. One was to discuss the district’s use of ballfields for high school play in Magee.  The second meeting was to discuss the facilities use plan that had been produced by Bailey Consulting.

What initially appeared to be a problem may have been for the best.  Neither the City of Magee nor Bailey sent representatives for the special meetings. 

What did happen, however, is that after much discussion the board has a better sense of direction as to where they are headed and possibly how they want to get there. 

Baily offered four primary options.  The first is to renovate the existing campuses just as they are with a cost of approximately $30 million.  A  sub-option is to close the existing Mendenhall Middle School and accomodate students at other existing campuses with a cost of $28 million.

Option two is to build a new consolidated high school and renovate existing campuses with a cost of $62 million.

Option three is to renovate all existing campuses and to close Mendenhall Middle School.  This would allow for renovations, and the high schools would serve grades 7 through 12 with renovation cost of $53 million.

Option four is to renovate existing campuses and build auxillary gyms at the junior high and high school campuses, closing the Mendenhall Junior High Campus, restructure Magee Middle and make the high school a 7-12 campus at a cost of $40 million.

One of the biggest things that has been gleaned from the Bailey report is the knowledge of the options that may be available for addressing the physical plant facilities in the school district. 

One of the best options  appears to be restructuring the use of the county’s current facilities.  While this is not the answer to all the problems faced by the district it will help with some of the immediate needs.   Bailey presented the idea of using the existing facilities to house additional grades. 

The board has discussed  how this change may impact academics, a specific focus of board member Lillie Hardy.  However  something of a “litmus test” already exists as to the impact of adding more grade levels to some schools, using the case of Simpson Central School.   

Simpson Central currently houses grades K-8.  The students then transfer to Mendenhall High School to begin ninth grade.  Test scores for Simpson Central have been consistently higher than at Magee Middle and Mendenhall Jr. High.  Part of the thought is that  continuity for the students may be better if they are left longer at the same facility.  Magee and Mendenhall students both change schools after the fourth grade, while Simpson Central students remain at the same location for four more years. 

Other mitigating factors may play into the equation, such as longevity of  staff as well as student numbers.  Both Magee and Mendenhall have larger student populations and more staff turnover.

The discussion at present focuses on adding grades at the elementary facilities so that students remain either through the fifth or sixth grade years.

Deputy Superintendent Debbie Davis advocates just leaving students in elementary through the fifth grade.  Her reason is that fifth grade uses the same teaching standards that are used in earlier grades.  She said sixth grade uses different standards so the inclusion of sixth grade may be more difficult. 

Magee Elementary can currently accommodate additional grades, but adding grade levels to Mendenhall Elementary would take more time because of renovation needs.  A plan is currently being considered to meet these needs, however. 

A host of different options are on the table to address all the facility needs in various ways.  But the bottom line is that none of the options can be done without a school bond issue.

The amount of the bond will be determined by the option the school board chooses and how much the community approves.  The low end cost of improvements is currently  $28 million; the high end is almost $62 million.  Neither option includes athletic facilities for the school district. 

The district is now at a point of exploring options to get the most bang for the buck but also to serve the needs of the school district’s students.