December 6, 2019
By: Dwayne Page
Fourteen months ago the Board of Education was sold on building a new pre-kindergarten to 2nd grade school to replace Smithville Elementary School and voted in October, 2018 to seek funding from the county commission for this building model once a suitable site was found.
The school board has now had a change of heart.
During a special meeting Thursday night, the Board voted 6-1 to scrap the plan for a Pre-K to 2nd grade school and recommend to the county commission funding two new Pre-K through 8th grade schools in the Smithville area and a renovation of Northside Elementary School to make it a Pre-K to 8th grade facility. That would give the district a total of four Pre-K to 8th grade schools including DeKalb West while eliminating both the existing Smithville Elementary and DeKalb Middle Schools.
Without any hard numbers, the board is relying on its architects’ latest estimates for construction which puts the new 2 school project at a minimum of $48,685,000 (not counting the total renovation which would be needed at Northside Elementary) and it does not include the purchase of land. In fact, no site has yet been selected for any new school. Board members say they can’t move forward on the purchase of property until they know if the county commission is willing to support funding or at least the concept of this new Pre-K to 8th grade schools proposal. According to the board’s architect, Upland Design Group about 25-30 acres would be needed for each of the two new schools
If the county commission should agree to fund the plan through a bond issue or note once actual costs are known, it will have to find the money to meet the debt obligations, possibly through another property tax hike, implementation of a wheel tax, a combination of the two, or some other revenue source.
Seventh District Board of Education member Shaun Tubbs, a proponent of the Pre-K to 8th grade building model, advocated his position to fellow board members in a power point presentation during a workshop held prior to the special meeting Thursday night. Members of the county commission attended the workshop and asked questions.
Tubbs insists his plan solves all the major issues with the existing middle and elementary schools in Smithville particularly overcrowding and security. Plus, he said it gives the county more bang for the buck.
According to Upland Design Group, the cost of building a new Pre-K to 2nd grade school has shot up from the original estimates two years ago of over $19 million to more than $30 million today while the cost of building two new Pre-K to 8th grade schools at the same time would be around $48,600,000 (total). Tubbs said that’s like building one school and getting the other at 50% off. Others say the plan could also bring on more recurring administrative costs and require more teachers in the system
Tubbs’ further stressed that by building two new Pre-K to 8th grade schools (each with a capacity of 700 students) and also making Northside a Pre-K to 8th grade facility, there would be no future need of building a new middle school and it would free up space at the existing middle school campus for future construction of possibly a new 2-3 story high school. With a new high school built at or next to the same campus as the existing school, Tubbs said there would be no reason to build new high school athletic facilities there which would also save the county $10 to $15 million.
If the school district were to have a total of four Pre-K to 8th grade schools (3 in the Smithville area along with DeKalb West School), the county would be divided into zones and students would have to attend the school in the zone where they reside. Student population would be divided as evenly as possible among the schools which means DeKalb West School with a current enrollment of around 400 would have to take on more students. Bus routes would also have to be altered because of the zoning which could result in fuel savings and less traffic congestion at the schools.
Overall, Tubbs said the pros in implementing the plan outnumber the cons.
“Like DeKalb West it would create a more community school environment at each facility and foster more cohesiveness/familiarity. Statistics show that grades do better with fewer moves. Currently students will change schools three times before reaching high school but at DeKalb West School students experience a tighter bond than other students according to information provided to me from parents, students, and faculty at DWS. Upper grades also show leadership qualities by helping and supporting lower grades at one school,” said Tubbs.
All school board members voted in favor of the new school plan Thursday night except 3rd District member Jim Beshearse.
In a statement to WJLE after the meeting, Beshearse explained his reasons for opposing it.
“The cost of the K-8’s is very expensive and if they are voted in and the county commission approves the money, we will be looking at more than $50 million and the thoughts of ever getting a new high school would be extremely jeopardized. If we build a K-2 school the cost would be less than half and then maybe we could focus on a new high school that is desperately needed as well,” said Beshearse.
“I have researched a lot on K-8s and the potential for bullying due to the age difference in the children all under one roof drastically increases and the middle school years are prime for bullying. The largest age difference in middle school students is three years whereas in a K-8 the age difference is up to nine years,” he continued.
“I also believe not being able to go to a middle school could create a culture shock for these children by spending all of their time in one school and not being able to transition to middle school as they always have in Smithville and DeKalb County excluding DeKalb West School”.
“If we build K-8s throughout Smithville and DeKalb County the schools would all have to be zoned accordingly meaning where you live is where your child would go to school,” said Beshearse.
“Everyone has their own opinion on what we should build and I totally respect each and everyone’s opinions on what we decide to go further with in the near future,” added Beshearse.
The proposal now moves to the county commission for discussion.