By Curt Yeomans
Ellenwood's East Clayton Elementary School may be closed as early as 2011, and its students sent to five neighboring schools, if the district cannot come up with $20 million to build a replacement facility, according to Clayton County Public Schools Chief Operations Officer Cephus Jackson.
The school needs to be replaced because of concerns about safety from a nearby roadway and truck stop, but the district does not have the money to construct a replacement for the school, said Jackson. Clayton County Public Schools Superintendent Edmond Heatley agrees.
"We could not build that school [the existing East Clayton Elementary School] today," Jackson said. "After the school was built, a truck stop was built across the street [Forest Parkway], with underground storage tanks, and the road was widened, so now it's about 50 yards from the school's front entrance."
When Heatley was asked about the reasons listed by Jackson, the superintendent said, "They are my concerns."
The closing of East Clayton's current facility is part of a draft copy of Clayton County Public Schools' proposed, new, five-year facilities plan. The Clayton County Board of Education is scheduled to vote on it in November.
Jackson said the school system will eventually replace East Clayton with a facility that will be constructed on a 110-acre tract of land on Steele Road in Ellenwood, when the district has the money to build it.
Jackson said the school system is considering three options concerning East Clayton Elementary School. The first is to close the school and redistrict its students to Anderson, Haynie, Hendrix Drive, Marshall, and Smith elementary schools. The second is for the school system to foot the entire replacement cost. The third is to ask the Georgia Department of Education for help in paying for a new facility.
Jackson said he and Heatley are trying to schedule a meeting with state Department of Education officials to discuss possible funding for a new East Clayton Elementary School facility. The bottom line is, regardless of the option selected, the existing school facility will be closed in a few years.
"Anytime you talk about closing a school, it becomes very emotional, because the community has become attached to that school, and they don't want to see it closed," Superintendent Heatley said. Heatley, who came to Clayton County in July, from the Chino Valley (Calif.) Unified School District, faced criticism in his former school system earlier this year when several schools were closed for budgetary reasons.
On Wednesday, Heatley said the draft copy presented to the school board earlier this week likely will be the version presented for a vote next month. East Clayton is one of two schools slated to be "phased out," according to the draft copy of the facilities plan. The difference, however, is that the other school, Riverdale Elementary, will be phased out when a replacement property is opened.
The school system included money to build a replacement for Riverdale Elementary School in two Special Purpose Local Option Sales Taxes (SPLOST). The majority of the funding ($12 million) to build the new Riverdale school will come from SPLOST III, which is set to expire at the end of this year. The remaining $4 million will come from SPLOST IV, which was approved by Clayton County voters on Sept. 15.
Even though school system officials have worked on the proposed facilities plan since last November, while planning for SPLOST IV was also taking place, money for a replacement facility for East Clayton Elementary School was not set aside in the new, $285 million tax. The school system is bound by law to only use the SPLOST funds for those projects listed on the special election ballot.
When repeatedly asked why officials did not include a replacement facility for East Clayton in SPLOST IV, as they did for Riverdale Elementary, Jackson gave a couple of reasons. He said the district could not get capital outlay funding from the state for a new facility, because the cost of renovating the school is more than the state will provide, and because Riverdale is more densely populated than Ellenwood.
"We've got the population in the Riverdale area that we don't have in the Ellenwood area," he said.
Clayton County School Board Chairperson Alieka Anderson said the board has not yet had "a meeting of the minds" on what to do about East Clayton, and the proposed five-year facilities plan. "We want to wait this out and see where it goes," Anderson said. "We never know what will happen."
School board member Charlton Bivins, who represents the northwest corner of Clayton County, where East Clayton is located, said he thinks it's a good idea to close the school. He said parents and students will ultimately win in the end, because a replacement school will be built in Ellenwood, someday.
"I haven't heard too much about it so far, because the only people who know about it, so far, are those people who are in the know, because they attend school board meetings," Bivins said. "It's going to be an issue, though, when people start to find out about it, and I'm trying to get out ahead of that and explain to people this is a good thing, before it becomes hysteria."