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John Thompson

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Stuck in the middle: Carter school officials talk pros, cons of proposed middle school

June 14th, 2014 11:26 pm by John Thompson

Stuck in the middle: Carter school officials talk pros, cons of proposed middle school

ELIZABETHTON — The proposed $16 million middle school for the Stoney Creek community represents a new direction for the Carter County School System.

The school system had previously conducted an extensive study in which School Board Member Jerry McMahan played a key role. Although the study came up with several suggestions, Director of Schools Kevin Ward said the main alternative was to consolidate the county’s four high schools into a single large school located somewhere on the Gap Creek Highway corridor in Hampton.

Ward said the central high school would have cost around $60 million. He said he thought that would have been too expensive for the county taxpayers. While maintaining four smaller high schools may be more costly in the long run, there would be no large short term expenses to burden the taxpayers.

Ward said he also liked the present setup of four high schools in the four key communities of the county.

“Both academically and at football and basketball games, there is always a lot of support for the community high schools,” Ward said. “I don’t think you would get that same support for just one consolidated school.”

Without the community loyalty and the decades of tradition built up in each of the schools, Ward also said he wondered how many students would move to Elizabethton High School rather than to a large new building.

“I wonder how many students from Unaka would stay on Highway 19E to Hampton and how many would make the right turn onto Highway 321 to Elizabethton High School?” Ward asked. The question was even more relevant for students of Happy Valley, who would have to drive right by Elizabethton High School, only a few minutes from their home, then driving another 10 to 15 minutes to Hampton.

“We project that a consolidated high school would have to be built for 1,500 students. What if many of those decided to attend Elizabethton High School? We might end up building a much larger school than we would not be able to fill.”

While the county’s high school buildings are all over 50 years old, Ward said they are in good shape, especially since the school system began receiving the revenue from the half cent of the local option sales tax dedicated to school capital projects.

“All the buildings have new roofs and remodeled bathrooms. We are in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, but we have made improvements to make the buildings more accessible,” Ward said.

Ward said there were several factors which led to the recommendation to build a middle school on property adjacent to the Watauga Industrial Park.

He said it is based after the model in effect in Happy Valley, where students are served by elementary schools housing grades kidergarten through 4th grade. They then go to a middle school for grades 5-8. The next step is the high school for grades 9-12.

A Stoney Creek middle school would take students from Keenburg, Hunter and Unaka elementary schools. The graduates of the middle school would go on to Unaka High School.

Ward said the Happy Valley model has proven itself through academic test scores. He said it has one other major advantage. It will cut the number of modular classrooms in use by the school system. Currently the system uses 48 of these temporary classrooms, some of them 40 years old. Ward said the new middle school would allow 22 to be taken out of service.

Although it will be many years in the future, Ward said the next building project would be a middle school in Hampton to replicate the K-4, 5-8, 9-12 models. He said that would eliminate another 12 portable classrooms.

The Stoney Creek middle school project has several factors in its favor, Ward said. First, the property is accessible from a four-lane highway.

Second, the 7-acre lot came with a reasonable $200,000 price tag, which Ward said the school system was able to purchase with revenue from the half-cent sales tax.

The location at the end of the Watauga Industrial Park also has sewer, natural gas and adequate water pressure for fire suppression systems. Ward said if the school had to install its own septic system, it would have added $700,000 to the construction costs.

There is also a factor of timing that was part of the factors for building a new school. The county just made the last of the bond payments on the new Cloudland Elementary School, which frees up $900,000.

Ward said that there is still a financial problem. “We have a debt service problem,” Ward said. Over the past several years, the County Commission has drawn down the reserves in debt service from $8 million to $3 million in order to avoid budget cuts and larger property tax increases. The declines in debt service will be less severe next year because there are no more payments to be made for Cloudland Elementary School bonds. But Finance Director Ingrid Deloach said it will take 12 cents of the property tax rate just to bring debt service revenues in line with debt service expenses.

If the county decides to borrow money to build a middle school, the loan must also include a percentage for Elizabethton City Schools equivalent to the ratio of county students to city students. That would mean $22 million would be needed.

To finance that debt would mean the property tax rate would need to be brought up by 27.5 cents, Deloach estimated.

That would be expensive for property taxpayers, but still a lot less than a $60 million central high school, Ward said.

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