One new high school for grades 10 through 12 and a separate ninth-grade school would be Decatur City Schools’ best long-term option, according to the author of a facility and enrollment study done for the district and made public Thursday.
Steve Salmon of RKR Planning Services in Bremen, Ga., said the 10-12 school would cost about $45 million — considerably less than $70 million to construct a new high school for grades 9-12.
The option, one of 12 presented to the school board and public in a meeting at Leon Sheffield Elementary, includes turning Austin High School into a ninth-grade academy, housing eighth-graders at Brookhaven and using Cedar Ridge and Oak Park for grades 6 and 7.
Superintendent Ed Nichols has said that the system can handle another $50 million in debt, but he is not ready to commit to any projects.
“We’ve got to work through these options. I will be interested in the one that provides accessibility at the maximum level for our students,” Nichols said.
Salmon said his role was not to make a final recommendation, but during his one-hour presentation, he spoke most about the 10-12 and ninth-grade option because it addresses several problems in the school system.
One issue highlighted in his report was Decatur’s inability to keep students after they enroll as ninth-graders. Salmon, who is being paid $12,500 for his work, said Decatur is losing students at an “alarming” rate, “apparently because they are not connecting.”
Salmon said about 20 percent are leaving between freshman and sophomore years, and another 20 percent is exiting before the junior year.
“This concerns me,” he told the group of school and community leaders.
Salmon said when the current senior class enrolled in Decatur as freshmen, the class had 749 students. That class has lost 233 students, 31 percent, in four years.
Nichols said about 7 percent of those are dropouts. The rest he believes moved to other schools.
Salmon said ninth grade is when school systems generally start to lose students, but Decatur’s rate is much higher than other systems in the area.
Nichols gave two explanations.
“We have old facilities and neighboring school systems are building new schools,” the superintendent said.
Also, Decatur is limited in what it can offer because of space at Austin and Decatur high schools, which means there are fewer programs for students, he said.
“We have to expand our career technical and fine arts programs,” Nichols said. “We also have to look at athletics and offer programs like wrestling.”
Resident Randy Tardy, who attended all of the public meetings in December, said the biggest problem is in the vocational area.
“The school system should be producing plumbers, electricians and painters,” he said. “We’re lacking in this area and everybody knows that.”
The plan Salmon presented included four options that were not in his initial draft.
All of the new options involved some construction, including building a high school and constructing a new vocational high school that Austin and Decatur would share.
Another option would be to make Oak Park and Cedar Ridge sites for grades 7 and 8, and make Brookhaven a school for sixth-graders.
The final option was to construct a new high school for grades 10-12, operate the middle schools for grades 6 and 7, and make Austin a school site for grades 8 and 9.
Just like the first draft, this plan does not mention a school in the Burningtree area, something board President Karen Duke said will spur growth in Decatur.
Salmon said there are 301 school-age students in the Burningtree area, and only 166 of them attend a school in Decatur.
Duke quizzed Salmon about the “build it and they will come” theory. He said that may have worked 10 years ago, but the economic downturn has slowed residential development.
Before selecting an option, Nichols said the board will study a list of comments made during four community meetings the Decatur City Schools Foundation hosted in December.
“We’re also going to find a facilitator to work with the board,” he said. “All of the stakeholders will have a voice in formulating our long-term strategic plan.”
Deangelo McDaniel can be reached at 256-340-2469 or email@example.com.
The $12,500 facilities study for Decatur City Schools, conducted by Stephen Salmon, of RKR Planning Services of Bremen, Ga., lists options for the school system. Choices were presented by Salmon to the public Thursday at Leon Sheffield Elementary Magnet School:
Option 1: No change
Positive: No disruption to district
Negative: Not efficient for future enrollment; community expects changes
Option 2A: Consolidated high school
Positive: Opportunity to unite community, consolidate resources; potential to expand programs; long-term maintenance and operating cost decrease; upgraded facility for all students
Negative: Estimated cost of $70 million; what to do with existing high school sites; community concern over change; ability to secure funds; less space per student than currently available; land availability
Option 2B: Balance zone lines between two high schools
Positive: No organizational structure change; no major capital cost.
Negative: Lines may be difficult to draw and maintain similar racial balance; line would most likely have to run west of Austin High to balance enrollment; continuing to operate older buildings with increasing maintenance and operating costs
Option 2C: Create ninth-grade center at Decatur High and operate Austin as 10- to 12th-grade high school
Positive: Increase program opportunities and focus for freshman students and possibly impact dropout rate; less capital cost than new construction; no zone changes involved
Negative: May not be acceptable to community; still operating 50- and 60-year-old buildings
Option 2D: Construct new 10- to 12th-grade high school and create ninth-grade center at Austin High
Positive: Increase program opportunities and focus for freshman students and possibly impact dropout rate; capital cost would be reduced for new 9-12 high school; no zone changes involved
Negative: Utilization of current Decatur High site; still operating 50-year-old Austin High, although with significant renovations
Option 2E: Construct third high school
Positive: Cost to construct new school for 750 students would be lower than other options; smaller schools generally easier to manage; increased athletic opportunities; existing high schools would continue to be utilized; system could remove buildings at Austin and Decatur that need major upgrades
Negative: Operation cost of three high schools; program opportunities would be more limited or more costly; system would continue to operate 50- and 60-year-old high schools; because of student locations, creating attendance zones would be complex
Option 2F: Continue to operate two high schools and construct vocational high school
Positive: Capital cost would be less than new high school; could provide more vocational training opportunities for students focusing on work skills; would not require attendance zone changes
Negative: Operational cost of three high school sites; students may choose not to attend; transportation cost would increase; possible duplication of program at high schools
Option 3A: Operate 2 vs. 3 middle schools
Positive: Opportunity for more program offerings at each school; more cost efficient for staffing and food service; better fit for future enrollment; 25 percent of students at Brookhaven already have transferred; possible consolidation of other alternative programs
Negative: Loss of school in community; more students would likely be transported and others transported farther; historical and emotional ties to closed building
Option 3B: Operate two middle schools for grades six and seven and convert Brookhaven to eighth-grade center
Positive: Improved opportunity to focus on eighth-grade for future dropout prevention; opportunity for more program offerings at each school; better fit for future enrollment; 25 percent of students at Brookhaven already have transferred
Negative: More students likely would be transported and others transported farther; historical and emotional ties to closed building; single-grade schools create some issues with family logistics
Option 3C: Operate middle schools for grades 7 and 8 and convert Brookhaven to sixth-grade center
Positive: Improved opportunity to focus on sixth-graders for middle school success; opportunity for more program offerings; better fit for future enrollment; 25 percent of students in Brookhaven have already transferred
Negative: More students would likely be transported and others transported further; historical and emotional ties to converted building; single-grade schools create some issues with family logistics
Option 4: Construct new 10-12 high school, operate middle schools for grades 6 and 7, and create center for grades 8 and 9 at Austin High.
Positive: Increased opportunities and focus on grades 8 and 9 and possible positive impact on dropouts; capital cost would be reduced for new 9-12 grade high school; no zone changes involved.
Negative: Utilization of current Decatur High and Brookhaven Middle; still would operate 50-year-old Austin, although renovations have been made
Option 5: Start planning to replace older elementary schools
Positive: Average age of original construction at sites is 45 years; significant numbers of newer instructional methods, equipment and techniques are not easily adaptable to older facilities; continued increase in maintenance and operating costs; Decatur city students attending other systems or schools may choose to return
Negative: Buildings are generally adequate; no significant capital cost to keep facilities as they are
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