ERWIN — Faced with a tight budget and insufficient funds to build a new Love Chapel Elementary School, Unicoi County appears headed for a reconfiguration of schools.
To make the best and most efficient use of the county’s existing school buildings, Director of Schools John English said the school system is studying a plan to do away with the county’s intermediate school and return the school system to its previous K-5, 6-8, and 9-12 grade configuration of elementary, middle and high school facilities.
Board of Education members recently toured the school buildings and are expected to begin formal discussions of the reconfiguration plan soon.
With the lease on the 12 modular classrooms currently housing Love Chapel Elementary’s 200 K-3 students students set to expire at the end of the current school year, a vote on the reconfiguration plan could come as early as January.
While building a new Love Chapel school has been discussed since a massive and unstable sinkhole opened up next to its playground in August 2012, English said the county’s financial situation has made that plan unfeasible.
“When I came into the (Director of Schools) position in June, I was aware the county was not in a position to build a new school,” English said. “They’re still paying for two schools (Unicoi County high and middle schools) and for them to build another $14 million school just isn’t feasible. And for me, it’s not even necessary.
“Looking at our enrollment, I feel we have the capacity to house those students and do what we can do to use space in the schools we have.”
Although the plans are “still very preliminary,” English said the option being considered is to use the county’s intermediate school as an elementary school for K-5 students in the Love Chapel school district and to return the county’s other three elementary schools to a K-5 grade configuration as well. The middle school would continue to serve grades 6 through 8 and the high school 9th through 12th grades.
“We do have reserves that was money set aside in previous budgets to buy land (for a new school). What we may have to do is use some of that to add space, add some classrooms, to some of our schools.”
For the students and their families, English said the reconfiguration would eliminate one of three transitions to new buildings they experience under the schools’ current grade configuration and ”the lag of adjustment“ that comes with that transition. ”We see that as a positive for our students and our families,“ he said.
The new grade configuration also opens the door for the possible return of team sports to the elementary schools and the possible preservation of Love Chapel’s identity in the naming of the new elementary school, although English said both possibilities are something the school board will have to look at ”down the road.”
What does appear certain from the feedback English has gathered in early discussions with the Board of Education and with teachers and families at each of the schools is that no one wants Love Chapel to remain in modular classrooms for the next 10 to 15 years.
“Modular classrooms are not a school,” English said.