By Kristin Fox
Before a large crowd gathered at Southwestern Community College, the Jackson County Board of Education and the Board of Commissioners recently met for a joint work session to discuss the needs of the Jackson County Public School System. As this was the first time these two boards have collectively come together, there was no voting or action taken on the items. JCPS Superintendent Dr. Dana Ayers shared budget requests and an updated priority list of needs of the JCPS school system with the board.
Ayers presented the school system’s capital budget broken down into two broad categories – capital and operations.
Capital outlay refers to the structure or “brick and mortar” needs of the school system, things rather than people, with a total budget allocation of $1,455,700. This figure includes funding for capital outlay of $335,000; central office preventative maintenance $375,000; technology $400,000; one-to-one devices $320,700; and security camera equipment $25,000.
The second half of the school system’s capital budget is operations at $8,600,097 and encompasses such things as salaries and utilities. This total does not include the additional $455,300 set aside as a special contingency line item recently awarded to the school system. The additional money was needed to support salary increases mandated by the state this year to cover those positions not paid by state funding.
The funding for the school system is budgeted in the county budget and is allocated annually to the school system. The single costliest item that the school system annually expends money on for capital is one-to one devices. Funding for salaries is the highest operating expense in the school system.
“One question I always get asked is why do we need to keep purchasing one-to-one devices,” said Ayers. “The reason for this is as we all know in this world of technology, once we get a device it is old. Because of that we have a plan every four to five years to get new devices into the hands of our students and staff.”
Several years ago, the JCPS Board of Education in collaboration with the commissioners created a priority list for the school system. For up to 10 years, the priority list has remained the same with top priorities being several egress projects.
Construction for these projects are nearing completion with four schools, Smokey Mountain Elementary, Fairview School, Blue Ridge School and Smoky Mountain High School, being updated to have a single entry point. These projects have included the construction of walls to allow students to travel safely from building to building without going outside.
With these projects nearing completion, the list was recently updated with the top priority now being the construction of a new cafeteria and additional classrooms space at Fairview School.
The cafeteria at Fairview’s cafeteria is undersized and underequipped. While the cafeteria can currently only seat 300 students at any given time, Fairview’s cafeteria serves the whole school population of 778 students. Lunch at Fairview starts at 10:40 a.m. and is served until after 1:00 p.m. moving the students in and out of the cafeteria at a steady pace to get them all served lunch.
Access to the cafeteria is very problematic. Students who have mobility challenges cannot use the stairwell, must exit outside and navigate the steep ramp outdoor in the elements such as rain, snow and cold temperatures to enter the cafeteria.
“The cafeteria is in what I call a basement,” said Ayers. “It was kind of an afterthought and was originally constructed after it was determined that the original plan to have students get lunch from the school next door wasn’t going to be the best option.”
Tentative plans for Fairview are to construct a two-story building to house the new cafeteria as well as much-needed classroom space. The new cafeteria will be well equipped so that the nutrition staff can appropriately prepare meals.
“We plan to have a new cafeteria with a new, fully functional, ready-to-service kitchen,” added Ayers. “What we are aiming for is a cafeteria with actual space to serve and store food.”
The new building will also include additional classroom space so that the school can expand programs such as band. Currently, the school’s band doesn’t have a designated classroom and has class in the entranceway to the school.
The county has applied for two need-based grants for this project, but both applications have been denied. Jackson County Manager Don Adams suggested to commissioners they may want to consider moving forward with the project considering the history of the project.
“This project has been a priority for the school system for some time now as we have delayed conversations about the project pursuing opportunities for state grants and waiting to see the outcome of the grant applications,” said Adams. “It has now been one and a half year, and we may want to consider moving forward with the project.”
At this time, there are no architectural plans for the new building at Fairview. King suggested getting a rough timeline with the architect. He stated without having actual plans ready, it will actually be approximately two years before construction of the project could even begin which would also play into the planning process for funding of the construction.
The construction of a traditional middle school for Jackson County was determined to be a new priority for the county and has been added as the second most needed priority for the school system. However, construction of a middle school for JCPS will not take place until after the Fairview project is completed.
The remaining projects on the priority list for the JCPS system include: 3) ADA upgrades/concession stand at Smoky Mountain High School stadium; 4) Track on Jones Street property; 5) New bus garage on current site; 6) Erosion control at Scott’s Creek; 7) Blue Ridge School gym with performance space; and 8) Softball field upgrades at Webster. If the school system decides to pursue a middle school, the Scott’s Creek and Webster softball fields could be taken off the list.
As part of her presentation, Ayers presented a glimpse of the age of Jackson County Schools. The school system has many old public school buildings with a range of 29 years as the youngest and 72 as the oldest. The Jackson County Early College building is only 13 years old, but belongs to Southwestern Community College.
Date of construction and age of original JCPS school buildings
(These dates are for each school’s original construction and do not include additional building projects.)
Blue Ridge School and Early College built in 1975/48 years old
Cullowhee Valley built in 1994/29 years old
Fairview School built in 1973/50 years old
Jackson Community School built in 1951/72 years old
Jackson County Early College (SCC building) built in 2010/13 years old
Scotts Creek built in 2001/22 years old
Smokey Mountain Elementary built in 1980/43 years old
Smoky Mountain High built in 1960/63 years old