It has taken years of work by the Morgan County School Board and its Growth Committee, but the future of Morgan’s schools seems to be mapped out. At their March 8 board meeting, the school board approved priorities including gearing up for a bond election to be placed on the November 2017 ballot; building a new middle school with grades 5 to 8 on 12 acres on Trapper’s Loop in Mountain Green by 2021; and adding a new two-story classroom wing to Morgan High School while demolishing the older wing in 2022.
In an effort to inform voters exactly where their money would go if the bond election passes next year, the school board is soliciting architects for renderings of both a new middle school and high school classroom wing. The district hopes to have completed renderings, which could cost the district $50,000, by September.
“We can’t make the case without having our homework done,” Board Member Mark Farmer said.
But, District Business Administrator D’Lynn Poll noted, renderings are not full detailed plans, which would cost much more, to the tune of 3 to 4 percent of the entire cost of the projects. Poll estimated that a new middle school could cost up to $20 million while the high school addition may climb to $9 million. As such, detailed architectural plans could cost the district more than $1 million.
The cheaper renderings could point to a price point the district will seek on the ballot in 2017 not to exceed $38 million, Poll said. It could also help the district decide on the amount of capital lease they may seek as another funding option if the bond doesn’t pass.
“If a bond fails, an option would be to use a capital lease to fund these projects,” Board Member Ron Blunck said. “It is not something we said we are going to do. It is an option.”
Board members said they would support a “basic” middle school design “with no skylights and big timber.”
“It should be cost effective,” Farmer said, “not the Taj Mahal.”
Board members are worried that enrollment is going to outpace the district’s construction plans. Many are watching the 48 new apartment units being constructed near the high school, and noting plans for another 200 units on the other side of the freeway. Using the average growth rate from the last eight years, reducing it a bit, the district could have 4,600 students by 2027 compared to today’s 2,800, Board President Ken Durrant said.
“As we look at what our needs are going to be in the future, we will need three elementaries the size we have now by 2027,” Durrant said. There are currently 632 students at Mountain Green Elementary and 746 at Morgan Elementary School. Another 1,051 students are enrolled at the middle school.
Poll said that the current middle school with grades 6-8 is split almost exactly evenly when considering where students live: Mountain Green vs. the rest of the county. Therefore, building a new middle school in Mountain Green would reduce Morgan Middle School’s enrollment by half. Taking fifth graders from both Mountain Green and Morgan Elementary schools and moving them into one of two middle schools would reduce the strain on both elementaries.
While the district would like to consider building a new high school to replace the current one constructed more than 50 years ago, it doesn’t have the bonding capacity to build a new $60 million high school.
“We all agree we have to do something at the high school,” Farmer said. The deteriorating A and B halls are not up to fire code and would need new sprinklers, heating, plumbing and ramped outdoor entrances.
“A $4 million remodel would mean it was a new building by the time it was done,” Board Member Ted Taylor said.
In the meantime, the district is playing musical chairs with its portable classrooms, paying $7,000 each to move several portables from Morgan City to Mountain Green Elementary. It will take highway patrol escorts and a tricky route avoiding overhead freeway bridges during a weekend, Poll reported. Others will be moved for $4,500 each from Morgan Elementary to Morgan Middle School.
“Portables are going to be there this fall because our bond failed,” Durrant claimed.
“We are going to run out of space to put portables,” Blunck said.
Musical portables is not only a sign of overcrowding, but also of political positioning. With several school board member seats on November’s ballot, Durrant said it could be tempting for several current board members to “walk away” and let other elected officials grapple with the problem.
“But if you do, you are doomed,” Durrant said. “We need to face the music this year.”
Durrant said that the district hasn’t fared well the last five times it attempted to pass a bond.
“You have a specific group of people that will fight you this year or next,” Durrant alledged.
Even if the district does complete a new middle school and high school addition, that would only defer the need to construct a new elementary school for another three to four years, Durrant said.
“We are going to look for land regardless,” Farmer said.
“We need to get an elementary in a more central location” such as Milton, Blunck said. “One in the middle makes sense.”
Superintendent Doug Jacobs said the board should not lose sight of the fact that the high school kitchen “is in crisis.”
Jennie Earl, candidate for a school board seat on the November ballot, said the district should consider building a science building, or “one building that could accommodate one specialty,” to be used by the different schools.
“We have a lot of balls in the air,” Durrant said. “No matter what you do, you are going to buzz somebody.”