Southside project tops list of needs to be funded with penny tax

Demolition crews are expected to begin razing a vacant brick building on the campus of Southside Elementary School on Monday, and the Grady County Board of Education is beginning to make plans for a major renovation of the school.
School board members are considering a major facilities project at Southside, which is the last of the seven schools to be renovated.
The structure to be demolished has extensive termite damage.
The board met last Wednesday, May 28, to discuss the Southside project as well as other projects to be included on the list of projects to be funded by the renewal of the Education Special Purpose Local Options Sales Tax this November.
Potentially serious issues regarding the physical condition of the original Southside administrative building, auditorium and wings are being investigated.
Board members authorized Superintendent Lee M. Bailey to contract with an engineer to determine the exact condition of the school buildings.
“I have heard everything from that the main building has extensive termite damage to the foundation is sound. That is why we want an engineer who knows what to look for to go in and tell us exactly what we have . . . good or bad. No decisions will be made until we can base them on factual information. This is the same procedure anyone would, or should, do before tackling a project such as this,” Bailey said this week.
The school system also recently contracted with Ray and Suzanne Finger of Raymond C. Finger Architects, LLC, of Thomasville to develop a facilities master plan for the Southside campus.
If the existing structure proves to be in such bad repair that it would be cost prohibitive to save the original building, Bailey is making plans for new construction.
The superintendent said he is particularly focused on being able to save the original school auditorium, “That is such an historic building and can be the focus of that campus.”
Based on the plan developed by the Fingers, if a new administrative building is to be constructed, they suggest it should face Fourth Avenue S.E., rather than Third Street S.E. as the main building currently does.
The proposed new administrative building is designed as a two story structure that would be erected near where the vacant structure is to be razed and would connect with the existing classroom wing to the west.
School board Chairman Jeff Worsham asked how the money in the current ESPLOST earmarked for Southside would be spent. School Finance Officer Dan Broome explained that those funds can only be used for renovation and not for new construction.
“I don’t want it to get out that we’re about to tear Southside down. I want to make sure the public understands what we are doing and what is the best use of the property we have there. I don’t want to be the one to decide what we do at Southside until we can get a report from an engineer,” Bailey said.
Board member Laura Register agreed and said that should be the first step. “That will determine how far we need to go and how the money needs to be spent,” she said.
Broome said that the local school board will be making decisions that will impact the community for years to come. He noted that in Decatur County school officials there had obviously made plans for facilities to accommodate needs for “20 years down the road.”
“I’m not being critical, but when we’ve built facilities before there was not much thought put into it,” Broome said.
“We built it for ‘then.’ We need to look ahead and plan for the future,” board member Teresa Gee Harris commented.
Bailey and Broome presented a proposed ESPLOST project list that includes $5.4 million for the Southside project. That money would cover the cost of construction of a potential, new two-story administrative building and two structures that would connect to the administrative building and with the existing media center/cafeteria building. However, the board has yet to approve any new construction until an engineer’s report on the existing structures is received.
Also included in the proposal is $1.5 million to be invested along with the state grant to construct the new College and Career Academy at Cairo High School. A tentative projection of $4.1 million is included in the project list for facilities needs at the county’s other schools.
The school system administrators are also calling for $900,000 to be included for a variety of other needs, but primarily to cover the cost of purchasing new school buses. Broome has earmarked $1.1 million for purchase of instructional equipment and textbooks; $2.2 million for systemwide technology purchases and security upgrades; and $800,000 for renovation, construction and improvements to athletic facilities.
Broome noted that outside of sales taxes, the school system cannot spend ad valorem taxes on athletic facilities.
A total of $16 million in needs have been identified, but Broome admitted that those are liberal projections and said the system will collect only about $13 million in the current four-year ESPLOST, which expires next year.
Broome pushed for optimistic projections and encouraged the board to agree to a very general referendum question, which would provide the school system more flexibility in the spending of the sales taxes if the referendum is adopted by the county’s voters this fall.
Board member Drew Pyrz said he supports Broome’s recommendation to build more flexibility into the process.
Broome said the school system would publicize the projects to be funded by the sales taxes, but would not advertise specific dollar amounts for the various elements of the project list.
Superintendent Bailey said Tuesday he hopes to identify an engineer this week and a timeline for the inspections of Southside to take place.

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