Sylva attorney Jeff Goss, who is the father of a second-grader and kindergartener at Fairview Elementary School, is leading the charge, a cause that for him began when a rash of bomb threats caused evacuations in county schools following the shooting in Parkland, Florida. As parents came to understand that the threats emanated from middle school-aged students, Goss started to think more deeply about the benefits of separating the middle school and elementary age groups.
“I already had that belief that we were maybe not where we needed to be, but certainly the safety issues met with the ultimate catalyst for getting involved, speaking up and saying something,” Goss said.
Goss first questioned the Jackson County School board about whether it had considered building a middle school during the March 27 board meeting, following up with remarks April 26 and May 29.
“The basic argument is, ‘Look, we need to look at allocating our resources better,’ Goss said.
Currently, northern Jackson County has four K-8 schools — Fairview Elementary School, Scotts Creek Elementary School, Cullowhee Valley Elementary School and Smokey Mountain Elementary School. Between them, the schools have 731 students enrolled in grades six through eight for the 2018-2019 school year. Goss believes that these students could be better served academically if they were all together in one building, rather than spread out in four different campuses that also house much younger children. Teachers for specialty subjects like foreign language, for example, are hard to justify if they’re only teaching a couple hundred kids, but if the middle grades were consolidated into a single campus, those offerings would be more feasible.
“It just becomes cost-prohibitive because they don’t have the same number of students in those schools to teach,” Goss said. “The idea is if we would combine all our sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students into a single school, we could afford those things.”
Goss also pointed to aging facilities in the school system as a reason to have this conversation now.
“If we’ve got those kinds of facilities, do we need to consider building a new school, and if we’re going to build a new school, where are we going to build it and what kind of school is it?” he asked.
Goss is not alone in his opinion. He’s launched a petition asking for signatures in support of creating a dedicated middle school and currently has 168 names. The petition states that, if the school system decides against building new, it should turn Fairview into a middle school, as it is the most logical location.
The third time Goss addressed the Board of Education on the issue, May 29, two other parents spoke in support. According to meeting minutes, Julie Sylvester, who has two children at Fairview, said she felt a middle school would better prepare students for success in high school, and Erin McManus, who is the mother of a kindergartener at Scotts Creek, said she felt a middle school would better support a diversity of extracurricular activities, including athletics, and would improve students’ emotional and developmental preparation for high school.
The school board is not brushing the input aside. The body asked architect John Cort, of Asheville-based Cort Architectural Group, to develop a report examining options and associated costs for forming a middle school, either by building new or converting one of the school system’s existing facilities. Findings were presented and public comment received during an afternoon work session Monday, July 16. The board will hold a repeat meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 7, in the Smoky Mountain High School auditorium.
“It may feel redundant to someone who attended the first meeting, but that is very intentional, because the board is adamant about providing equal access to information and for our board to be able to listen to our stakeholders in the community,” said Jackson Schools Superintendent Kim Elliott.
The report found that due to the number of middle school students in the county school system — 731 — the age group could be accommodated in a single 800-student building. It also found that all eight school buildings in the county are currently under capacity, according to state guidelines.
“Principals at each school were interviewed and it was found that with the exception of Cullowhee Valley Elementary School no schools are beyond capacity,” the report reads. “Cullowhee Valley Elementary School’s principal stated that up to four classrooms could be justified for organizational reasons.”
Four main options exist for establishing a middle school, the report said. The school system could construct a new middle school on a new site, construct a new middle school at the existing high school to create a combined middle/high school, construct a new high school and convert the existing high school to become a middle school, or renovate one of the existing elementary schools to become a middle school, redistricting elementary students between the remaining elementary buildings.
Of those options, new construction is most expensive — an estimated $30.1 million to build a 120,300-square-foot middle school and $39 million for a 156,000-square-foot high school. As far as converting an existing elementary school, Fairview, while the most convenient location-wise due to its proximity to the high school and potential for sharing resources such as bus routes, would be by far the most expensive, at $20.7 million. Scotts Creek would be the cheapest, at $3.2 million.
There’s no telling which, or any, option the school board will ultimately pursue.
“At this point we’re being intentional about research and information-gathering and listening,” Elliott said. “We’re trying very hard to keep the speculation at a minimum with our stakeholders because again this is very preliminary and it is our board simply listening to wants, needs and concerns.”
Goss said he’s been pleasantly surprised by the board’s response on the matter, and while he has plenty of questions and factors that he hopes to see the board consider, he’s not pushing for any one alternative at this point. While he still believes that Fairview is the most logical location for a middle school, he acknowledges that the expected cost of renovating that building is much higher, so another location such as Scotts Creek might make more sense.
“I was really hopeful to just start the dialogue and get folks talking about this,” he said. “I didn’t think we’d be this far along at this point, so I’m encouraged that it’s gotten this far.”
The results of a study investigating the possibility of establishing a middle school for grades six through eight in Jackson County will be presented during a public meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 7, at Smoky Mountain High School in Sylva.
In addition to the presentation from architect John Cort, the meeting will include a public comment opportunity. Members of the public are invited to give their thoughts on establishing a separate middle school campus, with each speaker allowed three minutes to talk.
Security improvements underway at Jackson Schools
Safety upgrades are coming along slowly but surely in Jackson County Public Schools after county commissioners allocated $400,000 in March for security cameras and monitors, plus $27,0000 architectural designs for additional security-related capital improvements.
Camera and monitor installation is about 25 percent complete, with Cort Architectural Group expected to complete design work in the next six weeks.
“In the spring when we started that project, apparently every school district in America is doing the same thing,” said David Proffitt, director of technology for Jackson Schools. “We ran into problems with supply, and the vendor took weeks and weeks.”
The security upgrades were prompted by the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 people dead. In addition to appropriating $400,000 for cameras and monitors and $27,000 for architectural designs, county commissioners added four school resource officers, one juvenile detective and six school counselors to the county’s payroll in response to the tragedy.
Proffitt said cameras have been installed in the entryways of all eight school buildings. The next, larger phase will be to put cameras in the schools’ interior areas, filling in blind spots in the current security camera system. The school system may have to bid part of that installation project to a third party if it proves too much for staff to handle, but by the end of it the schools should have double the number of security cameras they did before.
“I’ll be really disappointed if we are still working on it at Thanksgiving, but my hope is we’ll be finished by the end of October,” Proffitt said.
Jackson Schools Superintendent Kim Elliott said she expects any security-related capital improvements to be completed within the 2018-2019 school year. When commissioners appropriated design money in March, they expected it would take roughly $740,000 to make the necessary improvements and that funding would come from the county’s School Capital Reserve.