The future of the buildings that house the McMinn County school system is once again a topic of conversation.
The COVID-19 pandemic delayed talks of school consolidation over the past year. The conversation began again in earnest at last Friday’s McMinn County Commission Strategic Planning Retreat with members of both the commission and the McMinn County Board of Education in attendance.
“What I wanted tonight to be was a real conversation between two boards elected by the same people,” said McMinn County Mayor John Gentry near the beginning of the discussion. “We’ve got a window of time, especially with the federal money that we need to spend, and we want to do it wisely. I feel we have an obligation to our citizens who voted a tax increase on themselves to improve schools and we need to show them a plan how to do that and that we’re going to do that in a serious manner.”
Gentry was referring to the .75% sales tax increase that passed on public referendum last March and the ongoing allocations of federal COVID relief funding. He also noted that the commission and school board are planning to tour each of the county schools to get a closer look at the maintenance issues at each facility.
Gentry then presented a capital plan that estimated more than $53 million could be available over the next eight years that could be dedicated to school improvements. An accumulated balance of $14.56 million spread over several sources is currently available.
He adds to that a yearly $3.6 million allocation for school improvements over eight years that would accumulate $28.8 million by fiscal year 2029-30, bringing the total available to $43.36 million. The combined federal allocations to McMinn County government and McMinn County Schools totals $21.5 million. Gentry noted that if half of the federal money is able to be used for school improvements, more than $53 million total would be available for the project.
“My dream is for us to come together with a 10-year or longer plan that touches every campus location, saves a school in every community that has one, gets new construction, not just fixing, but new construction,” said Gentry. “I think we’re at a transformational time with this amount of money.”
Gentry suggested a comprehensive approach to the discussion beyond just the maintenance concerns at each of the county schools.
“We know that brick and mortar does not make the total education experience,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of other things that we can’t control … but what we can control, we’re going to try to upgrade.”
Director of McMinn County Schools Lee Parkison said he is requesting the project architects re-examine all of the county school buildings and develop a plan for remodeling the existing schools which could be compared to the consolidation plan that was produced almost two years ago.
The existing plan, which was first presented in July 2019 by Mainstreet Studio Architects and MBI Companies, Inc., recommended the closure of six total county schools and replacing them with three new ones.
The first part of the recommendation suggested a 400-500 student middle school to replace Riceville Elementary School. This new school would likely be located on the land Riceville is currently situated on.
The second part of the recommendation was for an 1,800 student Pre-K through 12th grade school to replace McMinn Central High School, Mountain View Elementary School and Englewood Elementary School. The new school would likely be located on the current location of McMinn Central.
The third part of the recommendation would see a 900 student Pre-K through eighth grade school built to replace Niota and E.K. Baker elementary schools.
Rogers Creek Elementary School, which is the newest school in the county, and Calhoun Elementary School would receive “significant renovations” and would be 350-400 student Pre-K through fifth grade schools that would feed into the new middle school.
The McMinn County High School and McMinn County Career Technical Education (CTE) buildings would both receive repairs and improvements.
It was suggested that the new Pre-K through 12th grade school could be split up into separate areas that share facilities, such as a cafeteria and library.
The total cost for the entire scope of recommendations was an estimated $95-$127 million. It was noted at the time that the work could be done in phases.
Details about the discussion between commission and school board members during the retreat will be included in an upcoming edition of The Daily Post-Athenian.