By Curt Yeomans
At least 20 county schools are in need a new roof, because of leaks and mold issues, according to Cephus Jackson, the chief operations officer for Clayton County Public Schools.
Most of the district's school buildings are more than 15 years old, Jackson said. Of the county's 60 schools, 14 were built during a time span that goes back to 1997, he added, and almost all of the other schools are at least 20 years old, and still have their original roofs.
That means replacing and repairing roofs at many schools will be a top priority for the district, if county voters approve a $280.25 million extension of the school system's Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST), Jackson said.
"Roofing is the most important priority, because of the potential for health risks to children, if they are exposed to mold," he said.
A special election on extending the 1-cent sales tax, which will be known as SPLOST IV, will be held on Sept. 15. If approved, the tax, which is already in place in the form of SPLOST III, will be extended past Dec. 31, for another five years. SPLOST III is set to expire at the end of this year.
Absentee voting for the special election ended last Friday, but advance voting is scheduled to begin today, and continue through the end of the week. The only advance voting location in the county will be the Clayton County Board of Elections and Registration Office, which is located at 121 S. McDonough Street, in Jonesboro. Advance voting hours are 8 a.m., to 7p.m., each day.
If voters grant the extension on the SPLOST, the money collected will be used to pay for a variety of projects, including renovations at schools; building a new elementary school in Riverdale; purchasing 118 school buses (including 33 special-needs buses); building auxiliary gymnasiums at the county's nine high schools; purchasing land for future use, and building a facility for the Elite Scholars Academy Charter School.
Jackson said the reason why re-roofing of schools is now coming up as a SPLOST issue, rather than being included in SPLOST III, is because the district's focus in recent years has been on building new classroom space. There were 269 classrooms built during SPLOST III, including classes that were included in four new schools, Jackson said.
"The critical area in SPLOST III was getting rid of those portable classrooms," he said.
In terms of replacing roofs, Jackson said Fountain Elementary School in Forest Park is one example of a school that needs a new roof. The school building dates back to the 1950s, said Wesley Smith, the school system's coordinating supervisor of construction. Jackson said the current roof on that facility is likely the school's original roof.
"Fountain is one of our oldest schools," he said. "We've tried to patch the roof, but every time we patch the roof, another leak shows up somewhere else. It's basically time we ripped the old roof off, and replaced it. There is only so much you can patch."
During a recent tour of Fountain Elementary School, two trash cans were observed in one classroom collecting water that dripped from the ceiling. "When it rains, about 10-12 trash cans are set out to collect the water," Fountain Elementary School Principal Tonya Mahone-Williams said. "It just depends on how hard it rains."
In a storage room at the school, mold has covered an entire ceiling tile, with textbooks stacked up below it. Jackson said mold is growing throughout the school's ceiling, and is now beginning to come through the tiles.
One teacher at the school has allegedly been missing work frequently this year because of illnesses related to the mold, Mahone-Williams said. Mahone-Williams said classes are moved at the school as problems begin to appear, so the health risks to children can be minimized. "We move the children around so that they are not impacted," she said.
Forest Park Middle School is another facility Jackson and Smith showed a reporter to during a recent tour of proposed renovation projects. Like Fountain, Forest Park Middle has a problem with a leaking roof. Jackson said there are "patches on top of patches" on the school's roof. "Once the leaks start, it's only a matter of time before the mold comes," he said.
Principal Jamille Miller-Brown said despite the leaks, Forest Park Middle School's facility is still a safe place for her students to learn. "I really love this building," she said. "It has a special place in my heart."
"But, we can't let problems go unfixed," Jackson quickly added. "Its a top priority of the district to provide a safe and secure environment for the children to learn in. Our students deserve the best facilities possible."
Proponents of SPLOST IV argue it should be supported because it is not a new tax, renovations of schools is involved, and as much as 70 percent of the tax revenue will supposedly come from travelers passing through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
"If we want to improve our facilities, it's very important that we vote for the SPLOST," Clayton County Council of PTA's president Cyd Cox said last Thursday, during a community forum hosted by Clayton County Public Schools Superintendent Edmond Heatley.
Cox had commented on the SPLOST vote during the forum, because a parent had asked the superintendent about it, and he said he could not legally discuss it. Cox, however, is a member of a volunteer group that is working to encourage voters to support the SPLOST extension.