Before their March 11 regular meeting, Superintendent Charles Wilson emailed school board members a summary of the School Capacity Balancing Committee’s recommendations. More than a year ago, the eight elected board members each nominated one person from the community, and those eight citizens and some school system and county staff members served on the committee, which met 10 times from Jan. 21, 2020, to March 3, 2021.
“Their recommendations represent the stakeholder perspective of the challenges and possible solutions that we should consider in addressing our growing (and shifting) student population, as well as the capacity of our existing schools,” Wilson wrote.
The committee made three basic recommendations: 1. New schools or additions should be built to address new growth; 2. School attendance zones should be redrawn in conjunction with the new schools or additions; 3. Portal Middle High School – which in contrast to schools in the southern end of the county is far from full – should be better utilized by rezoning or using a magnet school concept.
“We do have growth in this community,” Wilson said. “If you look across our district, the reality is this is occurring at a rapid rate on the south end of the county.”
Southeast Bulloch High School isn’t operating at maximum capacity – yet. The school’s official October 2020 full-time-equivalent count was 1,131 students. A chart that Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Troy Brown presented back in November 2019 showed the school with an “expected space utilization” capacity of 1,227 or a “100% space utilization” capacity of 1,534 students.
That “100% utilization” would mean having all classrooms in use every hour of the school day, with teachers no longer remaining in vacant classrooms during planning periods. This was a
tactic that board and staff members discussed, more than a year ago, as a less-than-optimal way to extend capacities of high schools and middle schools.
Of course, the classroom capacities, from before COVID-19 pandemic, were set assuming that students would be attending in-person with normal spacing of seats. Likewise, in planning for growth now, school officials are anticipating an eventual full return.
They are also looking at growth patterns from housing subdivisions being built in the county, not just the children already enrolled and moving up in school. A map showing residential developments was one of the resources the committee had available, and Assistant County Manager Andy Welch served on the committee as a source on county population growth.
“It’s continuing to pick up,” Wilson said. “We’re seeing it happen kind of between Bryan and Effingham counties and now it’s spilling over and coming into Bulloch County.”
Southeast Bulloch Middle School had an enrollment count of 826 students in October 2020, and 837 in October 2019. Its capacities were listed in November 2019 as 864 students at “expected” utilization and 1,081 at 100% utilization.
Meanwhile, Brooklet Elementary School, one of three elementary schools that send students on to SEB Middle, had 742 students in October, and its 100% capacity was previously cited as 780 students.
A larger SEBHS
The suggestion of a new high school apparently didn’t come from the committee, but was part of more specific ideas “from an administrative standpoint” Wilson said he arrived at in consultation with Brown.
“To address the rapid growth in the south end of the county, it might make sense to address building a new high school facility and adding it to the community, and then look at repurposing some of the other schools that are down there, whether they be middle or elementary schools,” Wilson told board members.
That new school, as he has since confirmed, would be a replacement Southeast Bulloch High School. Then the current SEB High School complex, completed 14 years ago this summer, would become Southeast Bulloch Middle School. The current middle school, in turn, might become an “upper elementary” school, but with its assignment of grades yet to be determined.
One school board member, April Newkirk of District 4, expressed concern that building another school in the immediate area of the current SEB High and SEB Middle schools would only add to traffic congestion. She also said she wasn’t fully convinced that building a high school is the best approach.
“But if we were to build a high school … where would we build that high school?” Newkirk asked. “I can tell you that I would be hard pressed to vote for anything in that area being built. I mean, I sit in that traffic every morning and afternoon. … That is a clogged area and I think it would put a major strain on the county’s infrastructure.”
Wilson agreed that, for this reason, he and the board will probably be looking for a different site.
Size and cost
The new Southeast Bulloch High that he suggests would have room for 1,600 to 2,000 students, becoming nearly the same size as Statesboro High.
It could cost $50 million to $60 million to build, he said. He acknowledged Newkirk’s point that high schools are more expensive to build than elementary or middle schools. But building a high school would allow the school system “to build once rather than multiple schools” since it allows conversion of other schools, relieving “compression” at all grade levels, Wilson said.
This approach could also allow Bulloch County Schools to access possibly $7 million to $8 million of state school construction funding, he said. Additionally, he suggested that this plan could eliminate the need for another $7 million to $8 million worth of additions to the southeast area middle and elementary schools slated for funding by the current five-year Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.
So, roughly $15 million might be available for the high school construction from the state and the current E-SPLOST. The remainder of the cost could then go to the next E-SPLOST plan, to be proposed to Bulloch County voters in a referendum before the current tax expires at the end of 2023.
All of this is very preliminary, and Wilson said he expects further discussion at Thursday’s 6:30 p.m. board work session.
Plan, then zone
He said he agreed with the committee that building plans should be made before attendance zone lines are redrawn.
“We have to address the growth in this district, but there’s no need to upset the community with a rezoning discussion and then pause that,” Wilson said on the phone. “We need to decide what we’re going to do to address the growth with facilities, and then come back and revisit the zoning discussion in relation to the plan we put in place.”
He called the committee’s suggestion of a magnet school concept “a great idea” but then said he wants any advanced or special programs to be accessible to all students in the county. He noted that Bulloch is “geographically large” and that Portal is a considerable distance from many students.
But Wilson agreed to a District 3 school board member Stuart Tedders’ request to provide information on what would be involved in creating a magnet school somewhere in the county.