According to Chris Baldwin, Macon County Schools superintendent, Cartoogechaye Elementary has only four more openings for students, East Franklin Elementary is 20 students over capacity, South Macon Elementary is 42 students over capacity and Iotla Valley Elementary can only fit another 57 students before reaching capacity.
“We could redistrict East Franklin and move some 20 kids to Iotla,” Baldwin said, but that would only be a short-term fix.
“Ideally, we have a little room at Iotla and that’s for future growth in the north end of the county — we’re growing that direction — so you’re still not solving the problem,” said Terry Bell, a consultant for Macon County Schools.
At a recent 2017-18 budget workshop, the school board began prioritizing a long laundry list of capital projects that would need to be funded through the county budget. The board agreed that one of those priorities would be a six-classroom expansion at South Macon Elementary to keep classrooms sizes down.
The expansion — which is estimated to cost $1.6 million — would allow the school system to free up some space at other schools by consolidating all of the Exceptional Children classrooms at South Macon. EC teachers could also share resources and classroom spaces if all the EC students were in one location.
“If we build six classrooms at South Macon we can create space at East Franklin and Cartoogechaye and keep Iotla where it is so we’re not looking at any additional construction for five to 10 more years,” Baldwin said.
But even with an expansion at South Macon, the school board has to begin looking at what its needs will be for the next five to 10 years, and the bottom line is that even the slightest growth in the next couple of years is going to cause overcrowding in the elementary schools.
Baldwin said the plan at South Macon was to move the computer lab into the library to create additional classroom space and keep the student capacity manageable for the 2017-18 school year.
“They’ll be crowded but we can manage. After that we’ve got a real problem at South Macon,” he said. “There’s nothing else we can do there — we’ve got ‘em in every closet we have.”
The $1.6-million expansion project cost is just a drop in the bucket considering the total requests for capital projects from school principals exceeded $14 million. Obviously all those requests can’t be fulfilled in the county budget in one year, which is why hard decisions have to be made before Baldwin presents the final budget request to county commissioners.
The board narrowed down the list to request about $2.9 million in capital outlay funding from the county.
Needs that made the list included replacing two school activity buses for $83,000; $114,000 for school furniture and equipment; $223,344 to replace iPads; $262,119 to replace desktop computers; $150,000 to replace windows at Macon Middle School and $40,000 to replace old bleachers at Franklin High School’s football stadium.
The board unanimously approved the recommended $2.9 million in capital outlay requests and also voted unanimously to allocate $12,000 for the repair of the heat pump at the Franklin High School gym.
Baldwin said it was too early in the budget process to decide how many teachers and teacher aides would be needed for next year since the state hasn’t completed its budget yet.
“It’s too early for action because we don’t know what will happen with the K-3 class size bill or the state budget,” Baldwin said. “We don’t know what the teacher assistant allotment will be — that will impact a lot of these requests.”
School board members are keeping their fingers crossed that the General Assembly will pass House Bill 13. The piece of legislation — introduced by newly elected Rep. Kevin Corbin, R-Franklin, — would give local school systems a little more flexibility with class size maximums in kindergarten through third grade. The current law states that classroom sizes for K-3 can’t exceed 19 to 21 students depending on the grade, but HB13 would allow classroom sizes to exceed the cap by no more than three students.
“We will need seven to nine more teachers if that law doesn’t get passed and things stay the same,” Baldwin said.
Corbin said every school superintendent in his district has endorsed the HB13 measure because it will save them from having to hire more teachers just because they’re a few kids over in a classroom.
“That bill will save the average county in my district $350,000 a year,” Corbin said. “It’s common sense — it gives the superintendent the ability to vary class size a little bit instead of it being dictated from Raleigh.”
County commissioners will be discussing the school board’s capital improvement requests in the coming months as they begin to piece together the 2017-18 county budget.
The Smoky Mountain News was able to report on the school board budget meeting thanks to video available at www.maconmedia.com.