McDuffie Board of Education officials are looking for ways to encourage students to stay in school until graduation, and McDuffie Place just may be the lure to reel them in.
The tract of waterfront property on Clarks Hill - complete with a small beach area, boat dock and cabin - is the focus of about $84,000 in planned renovations and additions, according to school system documents.
"What's so beneficial about McDuffie Place is it is close enough to home, but far enough out in the woods that they feel like they are on an adventure. It offered the opportunity to build team building skills," said Thomson High School teacher Susan Hitt, who used to take Thomson's Optional Program for Success students to the facility. "It has been worth it to have the upgrades... It's a wonderful resource for us to use for students."
The school system is already spending $9,000 at the retreat on repairs to the boat dock, but a request for the remaining $75,000 in work created a few waves during a Board of Education planning session last week.
Officials planned to use part of the school system's excess energy payment fund to pay for $3,000 in continued boat dock upgrades, $35,000 for a pontoon boat and trailer, $400 for life jackets, $25,000 for a boat house and $12,000 for cabin repairs at McDuffie Place.
Board members Georgia Hobbs, Jerry Randolph, Ella Mae Samuels and Dorothy Hart expressed a few concerns about the renovations, and McDuffie County Superintendent of Schools Mark Petersen took the plans back to the drawing board.
"We will look at what's right and appropriate that needs to be done, and we'll bring that back up. But there are some things obviously that need to be adjusted, and we will certainly do that. That's why we have a planning session is to discuss that.... I appreciate the input we received," Dr. Petersen said.
It was the boat request that drew the most attention.
Dr. Franklin said the boat would be used for marine biology studies and to teach underprivileged students to fish. He said state policy prevents the use of personal vehicles, including cars and boats, for student activities.
"We thought if we have a boat dock, why not have a boat? Why have a cabin on the lake if there's no boat to use?" Dr. Franklin said at both the planning meeting and the regular meeting.
Several parents attended the regular meeting to question the proposal. After hearing the explanation of the expenditures, Jaymie Rabun said she had no problem with it.
"I like to know there's other things out there besides the classroom. ... It's comforting to me that things are monitored by the Corps, because they are very strict. ... I guess it's OK to spend the money if they have done the research to show it's the best price and the best thing they can do with the money," said Mrs. Rabun, who is the mother of two elementary children.
The school system has leased the property from the U.S. Corps of Engineers for years, ever since Ed Grisham was superintendent and Roy Yelton was assistant superintendent of McDuffie County Schools, according to current Assistant Superintendent Jim Franklin. Initially, McDuffie Place was a haven for THS Future Farmers of America students, who built a cabin there. FFA students no longer use the area, according to teacher Jersey Johnson, because it is "too far away."
Over the years, various renovation projects - including adding bathroom facilities, a kitchen with refrigerator and ice maker, a new roof, bunk beds and rocking chairs - have been completed at McDuffie Place. Most of that work, Dr. Franklin said, was completed as a requirement to maintain the lease: Corps officials said they'd revoke it if improvements weren't made and the school system couldn't prove the facility was being used.
THS teacher Jodi Keith - who has also taken TOPS students to McDuffie Place - said the experience stays with them.
"I don't know if people think it's appropriate, but to those kids, they experience things they never have before, and it makes a difference in their life," Mrs. Keith said.