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Officials explain need for new Towne Acres school

Brandon Paykamian • Updated Oct 7, 2019 at 9:54 AM

Towne Acres Elementary School Principal Josh Simmons and Johnson City Schools Superintendent Steve Barnett say there are three key areas of concern when it comes to Towne Acre’s current facilities: safety and security, the age of the school and its capacity. 

As the district gets set to reconfigure its grade system by putting fifth-graders back into elementary schools and creating two new grades 6-through-8 middle schools out of Indian Trail Intermediate School and Liberty Bell Middle School, the question looms over whether Towne Acres can house more students as it exists.

At around 440 students, the school is already approaching its capacity. Barnett and Simmons said Towne Acres welcomed about 35 new students to the school this year under its current configuration. 

“This is a 54-year-old building this coming year. It won’t support more students,” Barnett, who served as principal from 2005 to 2017, said. “It’s at capacity. It’s in a part of the city that’s continuing to grow with the student population.

“Regardless, we’re already at a situation where we’re going to need new seats in 2022-23,” Barnett later continued. “This is one of those things you study and stay on top of.”

Simmons agreed with Barnett’s assessment concerning space. 

“For us, really we could make room for two rooms but that would mean having to take apart the computer lab, and we do use that lab quite a bit for some related arts. But also, we’d have to move a classroom into what is typically used for storage,” Simmons said. “Even with that, you’re just opening up two rooms.

“As far as capacity, we were kind of exhausting every option we have as far as where to put more students.” 

Total capital needs associated with the new reconfiguration plan currently stand at around $30 million. About $23 million of that would be needed for a new Towne Acres campus, and the rest would be used largely for renovations to Lake Ridge, Woodland and South Side Elementary schools. 

Simmons and Barnett both said the need for new facilities becomes even more apparent when considering security and safety concerns. 

Barnett said the school has remained largely the same for nearly 55 years, with the exception of some additions including fencing around the perimeter. Both said the fencing is easy to scale and does more to “keep the little kids in than the ‘bad people’ out.” 

“Fifty years ago, some of the things we deal with, which is school safety and security, were really on no one's minds,” Simmons said. “Now, when you look at what all is happening in our country, it’s just taken us somewhere I don’t think anyone would’ve thought we’d be at when we built this school over 50 years ago.”

The school’s design — made up of classrooms separated by outside walkways — was once a popular model for schools decades ago. 

But Simmons said this design presents additional safety and handicap accessibility concerns. He said cold weather and snow can also make movement around campus cumbersome. 

“We end up having to go out with caution tape to kind of rope off part of our facility just to make sure students have a safe way to get from building A to building B, and even throwing salt down and going out there with a shovel,” Simmons said. “Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with the weather. It may not be the kind of safety we typically talk about as far as extreme things, but that’s pertinent on a year-to-year basis.”

The age of the school’s infrastructure is another reason Barnett believes it would be “best to just build a new school.”

“The age of the pipes and the age of the electrical grid of the school is over 50 years old. So you’ve got a school where you’re using a lot of technology and trying to do that efficiently, and you have it in three buildings,” Barnett said. 

Barnett said building a new, modern, two-story school to “serve the community for the next 50 to 60 years or more” would be a better use of funds than trying to remodel and continually renovate the current campus.

“It’s up to us to demonstrate and explain those needs,” Barnett said, adding that he will continue explaining Towne Acres’ needs to city and county leaders.

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