School Board to request $30 million from County Commission

By Lesley Jenkins
Star Staff

   Carter County School Board members are prepared to appear before county commissioners on Monday to present the total monetary amount needed for a project to build two new schools and renovate two others. The school board met before the county Education Committee on Thursday afternoon to announce that the project will cost over $30 million.
   The project calls for a new K-8 school in Valley Forge costing approximately $11.1 million. For years now, school board members were aware of the need for a new school in the Stoney Creek community. The plan includes a new middle school for Unaka, costing $12,075,000.
   Basketball state champs at Unaka High School might get the opportunity to play their games in a new gymnasium if the project is funded. A new 1,200-seat gym for Unaka High School will cost $3,270,000. When Cloudland Elementary was built a few years ago, seventh and eighth graders were joined into Cloudland High School. Board members want to change this vast age difference by making the elementary school into a K-8 school. Converting will require adding new classrooms and renovating the gymnasium to meet standards for middle school sports.
   Tony Street, architect for Bessom, Lusk and Street worked with the board to approximate the costs for the whole project, including land acquisition, construction, and furnishings.
   School Board Chairman Daniel Holder said, "Our goal is to equalize the facilities across the system." He explained the rationale behind each need. Moving the seventh and eighth graders from the high school is necessary because "having the seventh grade kids in close proximity with 12th graders is not a desired situation. Socially and emotionally there is too much of a difference," Holder said. Some of the modular units that the seventh and eighth graders have classes in are over 30 years old.
   "We are proposing adding new classrooms and a new gym because they are not adequate for the number and age of students," Holder said.
   The situation at Valley Forge is a problem with an aging school and overcrowding at Hampton Elementary. Many Valley Forge students transferred to Hampton when the school was built in the early 1990s, which has caused overcrowding. Board members hope a new and expanded school in Valley Forge will bring many students back from Hampton Elementary.
   The Unaka area has long needed a new school, and members decided a new middle school is needed the most. This will alleviate overcrowding at Hunter Elementary and Unaka Elementary schools. A new gymnasium for Unaka High School is in order because the facilities are "not adequate for seating," according to Holder.
   Naming a priority from this list is not something the school board wants to do. Holder said if commissioners decided against funding the entire project, "we would have to go back as a board and do some soul searching." He added that hindsight is 20/20 when he was questioned about the overcrowding at Hampton and Cloudland Elementary schools since they were both built in the 1990s. The board would have expanded the capacity of the schools more if there was enough money at the time to do it. He did say that both schools are on sites prime for expansion in the years to come.
   However, the location of Valley Forge Elementary yields no room for expansion or renovation.
   Jason Cody, county finance director, said if the county decides to fund the project, it could mean a property tax rate increase of 40 to 66 cents, depending on the length of term and interest rates.
   The committee asked Cody to come up with three different scenarios to fund the project for next Monday's 10 a.m. commission meeting.
   One of the scenarios will be a combination of a property tax increase and a wheel tax.
   The committee recommended that Holder present the whole project, as is, to the commission. The full court will then decide if it is feasible to fund the entire project or prioritize the list and choose one item to fund.