Schools Bursting at the seams

By Trina Trice

Terrell Bearfield, a high school senior, has taken at least one class a year in a trailer since he's been in high school.

Getting used to classes held in a trailer is a way of life for a student attending school in a county that has grown as much as Clayton County has in the last 10 years.

Most of Clayton County's 53 schools are overcrowded, evidenced by the multitude of trailers on individual school campuses.

Student Cimone Hill and teacher Lori Miller actually prefer having a classroom in a trailer, or modular unit, as they are often referred to.

"It's no different than being inside a building," Hill said. "You're still getting an education."

Miller thinks having a class in a trailer breaks the monotony for students.

"I love it, I requested one," she said. "It looks tacky to the public for them to see the trailers, but I do believe it's better in some ways. I don't believe there's any stigma."

The student population totals 50,126, about 99.5 percent of the originally projected number, said John Ramage, assistant superintendent of Facilities and Maintenance.

"That's right in line with state projections for capital outlay (funds received from the state)," he said.

Every fiscal year the state projects student population numbers for the school systems receiving state funds.

The student population in Clayton County is growing at about 1,400 to 1,700 students a year, according to state projections.

With those numbers, the county will need an additional 13 schools over the next five years, Ramage said.

Of the 13 schools, seven should be elementary schools, five middle schools, and one high school.

"We don't have funds to build schools right now, and if we did, we wouldn't have the land," Ramage said. "It won't do us any good to raise the funds to build those 13 schools (because) we need to find somewhere to build them."

An elementary school site requires 20 acres. A middle school site requires 30 to 35 acres and a high school requires about 70 acres.

"We're going to have to look at two-story schools," Ramage said. "We're going to have to start thinking outside of the box."

New school construction would require another Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, something the Clayton County Board of Education will have to work on before the 2004 election.

The school district is in its fourth year of the 1999 SPLOST worth $269.5 million.

The 1999 SPLOST paid for renovations, modifications, and additions to 24 existing schools, $104.5 million; purchase of 11,500 student computers, $13.5 million; purchase of 175 school buses, $10.5 million; repair and renovation of Tara Stadium parking lot and track, $1 million; renovation and expansion of Maintenance Department warehouse and facilities complex, $2 million; renovation and expansion of Transportation Department facilities complex, $1.5 million; construction of nine new schools, $133 million; and financial assistance (with Clayton County Commission) with construction of aquatic complex, $3.9 million.

The school system is still managing to cope with the slow acquisition of funds from the 1999 SPLOST.

"Everybody in the state is experiencing the (same) thing," Ramage said. "The revenue is just not coming in."

The school district received $32.6 million from a teacher/student ratio reduction application, recently approved by the state. The school system could also expect $3.9 million in capital outlay funds for the construction of elementary school number nine.

The school system normally receives $3.9 million a month from SPLOST funds, Ramage said.

Even if the county had enough money to build all the schools it needs, it couldn't start construction on them too quickly.

"We're building them at a rate that the county tax digest can handle," Ramage said. "It costs money to open a school?anywhere from $500,000 to $2 million depending on whether it's an elementary school or a high school. You've got to pay for utilities, custodians, lunchroom staff, media?these are recurring expenses. If you put them up too fast, it can be a burden on you."

Ramage points out that even with the eight schools that will be completed over the next two years, the county could still need a dozen additional schools to keep up with growth.

The attendance size range for elementary schools is 400 to 950, middle schools is 550 to 950, and high schools is 1,000 to 2,000.

Ramage believes the district should start considering increasing the attendance size of schools. For instance, Ramage suggested, for instance that elementary school size be raised from 400 to 900.

The new sizes would even affect newer schools, such as Hawthorne and Callaway elementary schools.

"We're trying to develop committees to work on this," said interim Superintendent Dr. William Chavis.