Highlands School slated for $1.5 million renovation.
Despite looming budget cuts and uncertainty of what mandates will be handed down from the state level, members of the Macon County Board of Commissioners and Board of Education met Tuesday night to discuss the county's commitment to the students in the community.
The Joint Facilities Review Committee, which is comprised of commissioners Ronnie Beale and Kevin Corbin and Board of Education members Stephanie McCall and Tommy Cabe, along with other stake-holders from both entities, is designed to promote open communication and cooperation between the two boards.
“When I travel across the state for various meetings and talk to other counties, people are always in disbelief at the working relationship between these two boards,” said Beale. “I think it is a great thing for this county that we can put politics aside and work for the children of Macon County.”
The committee meets several times a year to discuss ongoing renovations and school improvements taking place throughout the county. The point of focus Tuesday night was a presentation from architect Mike Watson regarding renovations to Highlands School.
Macon County was able to secure a QZAB (Qualified Zone Academy Bonds) grant, which will cover the costs of $1.5 million in renovations at Highlands School.
QZAB is a pocket of state monies designated for school maintenance and renovations to be payed back at little or no interest. The county utilized these funds when making needed renovations to East Franklin Elementary. The county began working on securing the $1.5 million in March of 2012 and is now waiting to bid out the contract to receive the monies from the state to begin work.
According to Watson, the renovations to Highlands School will be focused on the elementary wing and be completed in three phases. If plans continue on schedule with securing the funds from the state, Phase I of the project will begin on April 10 and will be approximately 55 days, ending on May 25. “We will be working at night time, ideally starting at 4:30 p.m. and on the weekends to work around the children's school days,” said Watson. “We plan to have little to no contact with the students to ensure their safety during the first phase of construction.”
Watson's plan outlines Phase I as being preliminary work that will allow contractors prep time to get straight to work when school is out to ensure the bulk of the project is completed before school starts back on Aug. 26.
During the first phase, contractors will begin demolition on the ceiling grid and tile in the corridor to make way for the installation of new mechanical piping and valves. New panels will also be put up where needed during this time, as well as the removal and replacement of insulation, which will help with energy costs of the building. Phase I will also allow contractors to immediately begin Phase II when school lets out, by putting in a new air conditioning system.
Phase II is expected to begin on May 27 and last through the duration of the summer, ending on Aug. 20. During this time, contractors will install all new windows, door frames and doors as well as new bard units and all new lighting. The school will also get a new boiler and new pumps over the summer months. The bulk of the interior renovations that will allow the school to operate more efficiently will be completed absent from any students.
The final stages of the project will begin on Aug. 20 and will include removing all existing millwork, painting all walls, trim, frames, and any other remaining finishing that needs to be completed at that time. Because school is slated to start on Aug. 26, contractors will once again work nights and weekends to finish out the project.
As expected, school safety was a topic of the meeting, which according to Watson, has been a point of consideration when designing the renovations to the schools. “Just like when we built the new Iotla Valley School, the classroom doors will be able to be locked from the inside to prevent an intruder from entering the classrooms,” said Watson. “The new doors that are being placed around the building will also have a locking system that will increase school safety.”
According to interim Superintendent Dr. Jim Duncan, Highlands is already equipped with a state-of-the-art security camera system, that was donated by a private citizen. Highlands also has the advantage of being the only school in the district to have a full time School Resource Officer (SRO) on duty.
Committee members turned the discussion to school safety measures in other school sites and with the help of Macon County Sheriff Robbie Holland, who was present at the meeting, discussed cost effective ways to increase school security.
Holland reported to the board that he has instructed his officers to periodically stop in at various schools throughout the day and to do checks of the grounds. “I have gotten several reports from teachers and parents that they have really appreciated seeing an increased presence by your officers,” said McCall. “Thank you for doing that.”
While Holland has asked both boards to consider placing an SRO at each school in the district, members of both boards agreed that for the time being, that is just not financially feasible. “I think we can all agree that having an SRO at each school would be ideal, but with budget cuts and other factors, I just don't think it is possible right now, but is something we can consider in a long range plan,” said Corbin.
Commissioners emphasized that SROs would not be a onetime fee that would have to be paid, but instead would be a yearly recurring cost. The salaries for the officers would have to be built into the budget over time in order to be sustainable. Officials discussed one-time costs that would increase school security while waiting for the upcoming fiscal year's budget discussion.
With budget talks for the upcoming year still weeks away, the committee discussed immediate ways that the boards can work together to heighten school security with funds currently available. “I would like for my officers to work with members of the school system and the county to go into each school site and evaluate the safety measures currently in place and determine areas that we are able to fix right away,” said Holland.
Both the board of education and the county commissioners agreed to assemble a task force that will be working with the Sheriff's Office to evaluate each school in the district and pinpoint any safety concerns.
The committee also agreed to work with the Sheriff's Office to establish a lunch program with on duty officers that will allow officers who are on duty during the school day to visit schools and have lunch with the students. “I think that is a great idea and something that is not going to cost a significant amount of money,” said Beale. “It will increase the visibility and presence of law enforcement in our schools, and will allow students to get familiar with different officers, helping them to feel safer.”
Holland explained that about 12 officers will be able to periodically take their lunch breaks and voluntarily spend it in the schools.
With two schools being a stone's throw away from the Franklin Police Department, Dr. Duncan said he would like to work with the Town of Franklin to establish school security plans for the schools that fall inside the city limits.
Historically, town officials have not contributed to the school system, even for the schools that are in the city limits, because state statute defines that as a responsibility of the county. Officials at Tuesday's meeting seemed optimistic that with state budget cuts to education and mandates being placed on the county, that the Town of Franklin will be willing to step up for the safety of the students in the community. The Town of Highlands has already done so by providing a full-time SRO at the Highlands School, hopefully, Franklin will be able to follow suit.
Dr. Duncan gave the committee an update on the county's project to upgrade the technology in Macon County schools. Commissioners previously voted to finance $1.5 million to return the school system to a five- year replacement rotation for technology. Before the county committed to improve the district's technology, some computers were more than 10 years old and virtually useless.
According to Duncan, the school system has purchased about 10 percent of the technology covered in the $1.5 million which includes 360 desktop computers to replace old and unusable computers in labs across the district, 100 laptops, 20 for teachers and 80 specifically for Macon Early College and 10 Ipads and Ipad cases that will allow for a mobile computer lab that will service a multitude of students in the district.
County Manager Jack Horton updated both boards on the possibility of securing playground equipment for Iotla Valley School. When the budget was established for the project, playground equipment was left out to ensure all other essentials were covered during construction. “Members of the community took it upon themselves to raise funds for playground equipment and have raised an astounding $15,000 through donations or pledges,” said Horton. “We are blown away by the support in that community and are so grateful and appreciative of their work.”
According to Horton, the county has been waiting until it gets closer to spring to consider equipment to allow time for the grass to sprout to allow the grounds to be developed into a playground. Because the county is so impressed by the community's initiative and support, Horton said he believes that it is financially feasible for the county to provide Iotla Valley with the remaining funds needed to purchase the equipment. It will cost an estimated $50,000 for the playground equipment, and with the $15,000 raised by the community, the county plans to contribute $35,000 to have the equipment installed by this spring.