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New school is cornerstone of Sept. 19 education SPLOST vote

There's $23 million up for grabs as local residents head to the polls Sept. 19 to vote on the Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.

One of the main projects earmarked in ESPLOST IV is the completion of a new school on Whiteoak Road.

Crews have already started clearing the property for the 139,000 sq. ft. school, which officials expect will take approximately $19.5 million - $10 million from the current penny tax, $2 million from the state and the remaining from ESPLOST IV.

The total cost of building the school is unknown, as construction bidding will open Thursday, Sept. 14.

The school will house eighth and ninth grades, creating more space in the over-crowded middle and high schools. This plan also coincides with the strategies to increase the graduation rate. According to Dr. Barry O'Neill, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, research has shown that as the first year of high school, ninth grade is overwhelming, and there is a higher failure rate at that level.

"So having these two grade levels that are similar together in smaller numbers, will intervene in that process," Dr. O'Neill said. "Research also indicates that having a smaller-sized school creates a greater degree of personalization for the students. They don't lose their identity, and you can track them and take care of them better."

Principal-elect Steve Rhodes couldn't agree more. Mr. Rhodes said ninth graders find it difficult to balance the greater freedom and responsibilities that high school requires. He said the mission of the new school is to address this need of support.

"We are most excited to have the opportunity to bring a new level of support to our eighth and ninth graders in McDuffie County. The concept is certainly thinking outside of the box-something we continue to do as we address the ever-changing needs of our students," Mr. Rhodes said.

Mr. Rhodes, who is the principal of Norris Elementary School, was appointed by the school board last October to be the principal of the new school. As principal-elect, he will have input on the design and construction of the building, the curriculum and the personnel.

The building was designed by architect Greg Smith of Buckley and Associates and approved by the school board.

The physical layout of the new building boasts an important feature for the contemporary concern of safety. An octagon-shaped center, with the wings extending around it, enables a single administrator to see 90 percent of the building from a single point.

"As far as the lay-out is concerned, from a middle-school perspective, that's the best thing since grits," Thomson Middle School Principal Claude Powell said during a board meeting last year.

Other security features include inner doors and only three entrance doors, with the rest of the doors in the building designated as exit-only. High windows will discourage intruders and give better use of the wall space inside.

Economically efficient features include a sloping metal roof and wall-mounted air conditioner units. This means individual units for each classroom, which Mr. Smith said is more economical.

Features that promote convenience and less confusion include an administrative area that separates a parent reception and a student reception area, and counselor offices that are located closer to the students and teachers rather than adjacent to the administration.

A parent drop-off that is separate from the bus drop-off will ease traffic flow. Dr. Petersen said the Department of Transportation has bought some right of way to expand the lanes in front of the school, which will be located on White Oak Road across from the high school.

The plan involves four educational wings and one extra-curricular wing for the gymnasium. The gym includes a multipurpose room for volleyball, wrestling and other indoor activities. The layout also allows for future additions and growth.

The ESPLOST IV will not be an additional tax, but is an extension of the ESPLOST III which expires at the end of this year.

According to Superintendent Mark Petersen, the ESPLOST III plans included $7.5 million for the new school. Dr. Petersen said due to a variety of factors, the cost of building the school will be much higher, so the funds have been held to add to the amount that will be collected from ESPLOST IV.

On the ESPLOST IV ballot, voters will notice that the plan includes the addition of bonds.

In coupling the sale of bonds with the tax, the school system will have the advantage of completing projects up front, eliminating the cost of construction inflation. The $12 million bonds will be paid back using ESPLOST IV, so no additional taxes will be needed.

If ESPLOST without bonds are used, then penny-tax receipts could not be available for three to four years, and construction would be delayed until that time. Also, having all the money up front eliminates prioritizing projects.

Election for the ESPLOST IV is from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 19. Absentee voting will take place Monday, Sept. 11 through Friday, Sept. 15 at the Board of Elections office in the courthouse on Main Street in Thomson.

Web posted on Thursday, September 07, 2006

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