By Heather Mullinix
The Cumberland County Board of Education is considering building renovations that total about $5.8 million in an effort to get rid of portable classrooms at two schools, but some board members question why building a new school hasn't been considered.
In a work session Tuesday, building and grounds committee Chairman Vivian Hutson, 6th District representative, reviewed preliminary renovation plans for North Cumberland Elementary, Crab Orchard Elementary and the stadium at Cumberland County High School.
"My goal is to get every student into the main building with access only by the electronic entry system. That makes them safe from intruders, from storms, safe when going from classes to lunch and activities. These students who are in portables are making several trips a day in the outside area," Hutson said.
Gordon Davis, 5th District representative, questioned not considering the Baker's Crossroad property to build a new school.
"Why would you completely ignore the survey that was done 10 or 15 years ago that projected where schools needed to be?" Davis said. "Baker's used to have a school. It's a community. I don't understand why you wouldn't consider putting a school back in the community instead of adding on to one like North."
Director of Schools Aarona VanWinkle showed the board a map of school zones. There are 73 students being bused to Martin Elementary in areas previously zoned for North Cumberland Elementary. There are also about 21 students who live in the area and continue to attend North Cumberland because their parents transport them to school. These areas include Cartertown Rd., West Creston, Creston, Hwy. 70 N., and other areas closer to North Cumberland than Martin Elementary.
School policy allows elementary schools to accept students from out of their residential zone, provided doing so does not create an overcrowded condition at the school.
VanWinkle said a study conducted prior to purchasing the property at Baker's Crossroad found the northern portion of the county was experiencing a great deal of growth and was the area where a new school was needed. The school would take students currently attending North Cumberland and Martin elementary schools, allowing North Cumberland to no longer need its seven portable classrooms and allowing Martin to take students living close by currently zoned for Homestead, Stone and South Cumberland elementary schools.
Hutson said school enrollment showed a downward trend, with about a 200 pupil decrease from 2010-'11 to the current school year in kindergarten through eighth grade. Census and Tennessee Health Department population projections are calling for growth of about 130 students, county-wide, through 2020 — about three or four students per school, Hutson said.
The North Cumberland renovation plan calls for construction of a multi-purpose room and eight classrooms to replace seven portable classrooms. At Crab Orchard, the plan calls for eight classrooms and a new gymnasium.
"Even though our enrollment is down, this plan would put the students we currently have inside the main building," Hutson said.
State funding also relies on student enrollment and with decreased enrollment, some board members questioned how the school system would absorb the increased operational costs of a new school.
Sandy Brewer, 3rd District representative, asked, "Can we afford a new elementary school right now?"
The school system would not receive much additional funding from the state for a new school, she said, and the county would bear the cost of furnishing the building and the added operational expenses. VanWinkle said state funds would follow the students, providing for teachers and a few administrative positions after the first year.
Davis said schools were designed for a specific number in regards to core facilities, such as size of hallways and cafeterias. He also said it was difficult to teach students while a construction project was under way due to noise and safety concerns. Construction time would be about half a school year for each project. Davis said the board could expect a realistic construction time of about two school years.
Others questioned why the county did not move to a middle school concept, making its elementary schools serve pre-K through fifth or sixth grade and having centralized middle schools for students in grades six through eight.
"Out of 95 counties, only 15 don't use the middle school concept," Brewer said.
Davis said, "Why would you create a middle school when it's the worst idea out there, and it's been proven? Research will tell you K-8 is superior."
Richard Janeway, 2nd District representative, said middle schools would increase costs for transportation because of the size of the county. Davis said middle schools often had problems with discipline, academics and attendances.
"Look at the school systems going back to the K-8 idea," Davis said. Some school systems are now building elementary and middle schools on the same campus.
VanWinkle cautioned the board on the need for an in-depth study and long-term plan if it wanted to pursue a middle school concept.
"If you are going to go with a middle school concept, the portables will be gone. So you won't need to spend this $5.8 million on additions at these schools. If you're not going to go with a middle school concept, then look and see what's best. But put it to rest and make a decision about what you're going to do," she said. "But you've got to do the study and have a plan in place before you start band-aiding."
Janeway said, "We're going to spend $5 million on 16 classrooms when we could spend a couple million dollars more and get a school."
He said a study needed to be done to see what savings the school system could gain by building a new school, such as savings in transportation.
"This $5 million for 16 classrooms is just the tip of the iceberg," he said. "That's all we can do this year. If we're going to eliminate portables, we're going to do the same thing at Homestead, the same thing at South. We're going to end up doing it at every school in this county. We're going to spend $20 million to eliminate portables."
Janeway noted the board had approved five-year and 10-year plans that did not include the additions being considered.
David Bowman, 7th District representative, said, "Plans change. It's just a plan."
There was some question if any building projects would find funding in the upcoming budget, which is already $4.5 million out of balance with no building projects.
"These projects are contingent on county funding," Hutson said.
The board has not yet completed its budget. A work session is set for Tuesday, June 18, beginning at 5 p.m., to discuss the budget and prepare it for the Cumberland County Commission. That meeting will be held at the Central Office and the public is invited to attend.