Two Middle Schools?
By Alex Saitta
April 14, 2014
To add a second middle school in Easley or not, that was a hot topic in the recent school board election. Continuing to read through some of my old columns, I think this one needs updating given there have been a few new developments. Below is my July 12, 2013 write-up (in black). My updates are in red. The original write-up you can find in all write-ups, in the 2013 section.
From the June 24, 2013 meeting.
Last night the board voted to stick to one middle school in Easley, confirming its late May vote in another 5 to 1 vote against the project. I wrote an op-ed in the Greenville News last week explaining why I voted for one school and not two.
When the Pickens County School Building Program was passed in 2006, the plan was to have one middle school in Easley, converting the old high school to the new middle school (Brice Middle). That school was initially allocated $18.1 for its renovation. As the building program grew, the budget for that school grew to $20.9 million.
In October 2010 a second middle school (Gettys Middle) was added to the program and the total budget for the two schools was $26.2 million. Due to various reasons (saving the 1939 building at Brice Middle, and the growing wants at Gettys Middle), the district administration estimated the cost to renovate both schools was $6 million above that budget figure. [The estimated cost later grew to $9 million above budget.]
In May, the district administration recommended and the board voted to go back to the original plan of one middle school in Easley and $25 million is being spent to convert the old high school to the new middle school (Brice Middle).
The one middle school in Easley is now called the new Gettys Middle and $25.3 million in total was spent on that school, with $8.2 million later being added to the project. The new Gettys has a 1,500 capacity, and houses 1,350 students. If the district builds a second middle school in Easley, enrollment at the two schools will be halved or 675 and the new Gettys will be more than half empty. To add a second middle school would be unwise.
When the idea of a county-wide building program was first introduced in 2005, the initial cost estimate was $158 million. That figure was increased eight times as the program was expanded to $178 million, $197 million, $315, $336, $354, $365, $374 and to the current cost of $377.8 million. Tax rates were raised twice, by a total of 41 mills and about $353 million was borrowed. I know it is about giving the children better school buildings, my children attended Holly Springs Elementary this past year, but at some point you have to look at how much debt you are putting your children in to ďgiveĒ them all these things.
The building program was expanded one final time for HVAC and roof repairs on January 27, 2014, funded by the extra interest in the building program. The unofficial final cost of the building program was $387 million.
By the way, the school districtís bond tax rate will rise again this year for two reasons. One, the bond payment will rise by $2 million due to the rising schedule of bond payments approved in 2006. Two, total county assessed value will fall in this yearís reassessment. The former will boost the rate about 4.5 mills and the later about 1.5 mills or about 6 mills in total. Those numbers are in flux, but 6 mills is the best estimate at this point.
It now costs $2.3 million a year more to run all these new and renovated schools. The rising cost to run these buildings is choking the education budget.
That cost is $2.6 million annually to clean, power, insure, cut lawns, the building programís extra 800,000 sqf and acreage. That $2.6 million is paid for out of the general fund, the same fund the district uses to pay teacher salaries, for textbooks, etc. That figure should rise a bit in 2014-15 as another 20,000 sqf are added to the new Gettys Middle School.
To run the second middle school in Easley would have cost another $700,000 annually. Funding the district does not have, but would have to get elsewhere in its general fund budget.
A couple of months ago, the Easley Trustee, Judy Edwards, proposed a plan to raise classroom sizes by eliminating 25 classroom teaching positions. Her proposal failed by just one vote. The district is that close to having to put more students in each classroom in order to deal with its rising costs.
Many parents whose children were slated to attend Gettys Middle, have emailed board members for the past two years in opposition to the second middle school because they felt their school would be second rate to Brice Middle. There is some truth to that. Brice Middle, the former high school, innately has more to offer like a football stadium, auditorium and its main building (the 1939 building) was gutted and completely renovated because it was just so old.
The old Gettys has been vacant nearly a year. To re-open it and make it the second middle school, would require the building be brought up to code in all ways. Instead of costing $15 million to renovate, the renovation cost will be more like $25 million.
And would parents/ students now attending the new Gettys (the best middle school facility in the county with its historical and campus-like feel, a football stadium and auditorium), be willing to transfer back to the old Gettys if it isnít of equal quality and breath? I doubt it. To satisfy them, would probably put the renovation price tag closer to $30 million.
And where would that $30 million come from? A school board only has the authority to borrow up to 8% of the total county assessed value. The county assessed value is $435 million, times 8%, is a $35 million capacity. The board borrows $26 million a year to make the bond payment on the Greenville Plan, so the board can only borrow $9 million by raising its right hand. The board would have to go to referendum to raise most of the $30 million for the second middle school.
After spending $387 million on buildings, the voters would not approve borrowing and spending $30 million on another middle school in Easley (12 mill tax increase over 5 years). It might pass in Easley, but the referendum would fail 10 to 1 in the rest of the county.
It is true Easley didnít get a proportional amount of the building program money based on its enrollment. However, there was a reason for that. Just before the building program, in 2003 and 2004, millions were spent renovating four of the seven schools in Easley, when no other schools in the county were getting any renovation money. For instance, in 2004, just before the building program, East End Elementary was rebuilt from the ground up. So when the building program started in 2007, East End received only $640,000 of building program money. The school didnít need it: it was a practically new school.
McKissick Elementary in Easley, which wasnít renovated in 2003-04, received a $6.2 million renovation in the building program. It was by far the largest elementary school renovation project in the county. Easley is not being treated unfairly.
Liberty schools received a disproportionate amount of building program money (21% of building money, but only 14% of total enrollment), but it had the greatest need going into the building program because the last time any of its schools had work was in 1998 (minor work at Liberty Elementary). Liberty Middle hadnít had any work since 1967 and by far was the school in the worst condition.
Finally, the notion Easleyís middle school enrollment is growing is simply untrue. Easley has the same number of middle school students now (1352) as it did ten years ago. Likely, enrollment will fall the next few years. Intense, a charter school in Easley, is scheduled to open in August 2014. This middle school of up to 280 students will open in 2014-15.
This has been delayed a year. Not sure why the opening was delayed, but Intense Charter Schoolís Facebook page now states the opening for August 2015.