Athens City School Board talks consolidation

Vice Chairman of the Athens City School Board of Education Chris Adams (right) spoke to fellow Board members about the need for a refined plan in order to progress with the schools consolidation project at the Board meeting on Feb. 11. Shown with him (from left) are Director of Schools Dr. Melanie Miller and Chairman Mike Bevins.

At their meeting on Monday, the Athens City School Board of Education announced they decided to delay sending their official endorsement letter to the Athens City Council regarding which square footage size they support in the matter of the schools consolidation request.

At the last school board meeting, members authorized an executive committee to draft a letter to the City Council about the size of the new elementary school facility that they hope to have funded.

According to Director of Schools Dr. Melanie Miller, city officials are developing a timeline for a potential sales tax increase. The first reading of a sales tax ordinance could come to a Council vote as soon as its regular meeting on March 19 and, if the vote passed, a second reading would occur in April.

With that timeline in mind, the school board decided to collaborate with their own system officials and consulting firm, Design Innovation Architects (DIA), to ensure they are advocating the plan that best meets the system’s needs.

Lately, the two most publicly discussed sizes for the new facility have been two proposed by Cooperative Strategies — Option 1A, 120 square feet per student, and Option 1B, 150 square foot per student.

On Monday, Miller stated that she and Athens City Manager C. Seth Sumner have maintained communication about different variables affecting the two bodies and their decision making processes.

For instance, Miller said she sent Sumner the school system’s current square footage per student in each school, emphasizing the need for more square footage per student. According to the director, all of the schools are currently larger than the proposed size of Option 1A.

Since every city school currently ranges in size from 133 to 160 square feet per student, Miller said, “nowhere in our current programming do we have anywhere with 120 square feet per student.”

Subsequently, she added, “Nowhere in our current schools do we have space.”

Noticing the discrepancy, Chris Adams, vice chairman, questioned why Cooperative Strategies did not take into account the school system’s current sizes and programming when posing plans for the system’s future.

Miller stated she believes they did not look at programming, but instead looked at square footage and number of students. Additionally, she said that DIA has expressed a willingness to collaborate with Cooperative Strategies to discuss the system’s programming needs.

“Some school systems do not have certain services,” Miller continued. “I think we do need to keep talking with Cooperative Strategies to ask them what they looked at to see at 120 square feet — was it simply just numbers and size or how deeply did you go with programming?”

Chairman Mike Bevins stated he is not opposed to the two entities working together, but will not support paying Cooperative Strategies to conduct programming research, since the school system already paid DIA for that service.

“I want our consultants to do our needs, our planning, et cetera. That’s who we hired,” Bevins said. “This is our project. Our funding body, City Council, is funding our request. I don’t have a problem with Cooperative Strategies being involved, but I don’t want to pay them a fee.”

On the topic of funding, Adams said he felt the fiscal figures posed by Cooperative Strategies were “too broad” and should be more customized and comprehensive. Board Member Abby Carroll agreed that the figures were “very speculative.”

“They had a lot of figures in there that didn’t seem to really address what we’re dealing with,” Adams explained. “If we’re going to look at this and get down to the perfect square foot per student number then I would like for them to come back with a refined number amount they’re looking at on both sales tax dollars generation, property tax generation, and then a really simple mathematical equation of how much will be going back to school debt and City of Athens.”

He added, “I understand that the sales tax has a great deal to do with that (number), but if the sales tax passes, what would that generate?”

Pending the details, Adams said he also would like to see an “amortization schedule based on true debt.”

Other Board members also weighed in on specific concerns and the overall process.

Board member Dr. Amy Sullins said, in her research, she found the models of schools presented by Cooperative Strategies in the 120 size range were from larger areas with multiple facilities, whereas the new facility would be the only elementary school for Athens.

She and Board member Beth Jackson both noted they do not want to have to eliminate services because of inadequate space.

“If we want our teachers to be able to plan, they’ve got to have the space and curriculum to be able to do that,” Miller added.

At the City Council study session on Monday night Sumner stated he hopes the Council will receive a square footage recommendation from the school board by next month.

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