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Norris Elementary to close, not middle school

The McDuffie County Board of Education voted to close the Norris Elementary School building, reorganize grades and adopt a five-year facility plan at their regular monthly meeting on May 13.


After reconvening from a closed session, school board members voted to close the R.L. Norris Elementary School building on Harrison Road for the 2010-11 school year. Fourth- and fifth-grade students housed there will be transferred to the Thomson Middle School building on Main Street in Thomson.

The vote came three months after the board had voted to close the middle school building and transfer the sixth- and seventh-graders to the Thomson-McDuffie Junior High School building.

After Thursday's vote, fourth- and fifth-graders will attend school in the middle school on Main Street. The name of the building will be changed to R.L. Norris Elementary School.

Sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders will attend school in the junior high facility on White Oak Road. The name of the building will be changed to Thomson-McDuffie County Middle School.

Ninth-graders will attend school during the 2010-11 school year at Thomson High School, also on White Oak Road. This is a change from the past two years, when eighth and ninth grades were housed at the junior high school.

Although the vote passed unanimously, School Board Chairwoman Georgia Hobbs said she still likes the first plan of closing the middle school building.

"I still feel our first recommendation was our best choice," she said in a telephone interview. "It's such a sprawled out campus for fourth and fifth graders. ... Norris is a compact building with three wings and a gym, as opposed to several different buildings."


In the first consolidation plan, it was acknowledged that both Norris and Thomson Middle did not meet fire code standards, but board members felt the middle school was more of a fire hazard because of the pine wood interior.

Two public hearings were held in April to give the public opportunity to ask questions about closing the middle school. As previously reported in The McDuffie Mirror, several discussions involved comparing closing the middle school with Norris Elementary, the likelihood of vandalism on both schools, cost savings of the closure, other closed buildings on Main Street and the sentimentality of the middle school building which was once Thomson High School.

At Thursday's meeting, School Superintendent Jim LeBrun said a formal complaint was filed with the state fire marshal's office concerning the safety of both buildings after the public hearings.

"Basically, that complaint required us to go to the schools and do a fire safety evaluation of both buildings," Georgia Fire Safety Compliance Officer James Crawley said. "Based on the codes when the buildings were built, and based on the current codes adopted, that's how you come to the conclusion of a safe building for them to occupy."

Mr. Crawley said it is up to the Board of Education to look at his reports and make the monetary determinations which would be best to correct. He said the Norris building has large, plate-glass windows lining the exterior walls of each classroom, and plate glass at the top of the interior corridor walls that was used for lighting purposes when the building was built.

"That glass does not give you any kind of fire ratings," Mr. Crawley said. "And in a severe weather situation, what you would do is evacuate the students into the hallway. But there's glass directly over their heads in the hallway. So, it's an issue as far as a fire standpoint and a safety standpoint."

In the middle school building, Mr. Crawley said emergency lights need to be replaced, "which is a routine maintenance thing," and the smoke detection/alarm system needs some upgrades.

Mr. LeBrun said estimations were $30,000 to make the necessary changes to Norris Elementary and $6,000 for the middle school.

"The board doesn't think it's prudent to put $30,000 into a facility we are going to close," Mr. LeBrun said.

The $6,000 needed to bring the middle school building up to current fire code standards does not include a sprinkler system, Mrs. Hobbs said. When the board voted in February to close the middle school to students, they asked Assistant Superintendent Jim Franklin to get estimates on a sprinkler system for the building to preserve it for future use.

"We don't know what that would cost," Mrs. Hobbs said Monday. "They are not requiring us to have a sprinkler system.... I'm sure that's going to be much, much more than $6,000."


After Thursday's executive session, school board members also approved the Five Year Facilities Plan drawn up during a meeting with members of the state facilities team earlier that day.

The 95-page plan, which is available on the school system's Web site, reveals a summary of past enrollment figures and projection of future enrollment, an explanation of school organization and grade distribution, curriculum and space needs for each school, a summary of needed renovations, modifications with the accompanying budgets and inventories of each school.

The number one priority of the five-year plan is building a new Norris Elementary School. The second priority is renovations to the Thomson High School facility, which Mr. LeBrun said is now 20 years old. Numbers three through five on the priority list are renovations to Dearing, Thomson and Maxwell elementary schools, followed by phasing out the Thomson Middle School facility, no changes to the Thomson-McDuffie Middle School and, lastly, phasing out the old Norris Elementary building.

"This plan will now go to the Georgia Department of Education for approval, which will enable McDuffie County to earn much needed state entitlement funds to help offset some of the construction costs of these projects," Mr. LeBrun said in an email.

The plan requires $13,150,102 of state entitlement and $7,034,444 of local funding for the capital outlay purposes for the next five years. An extension of the current Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax will be needed to fund the new Norris Elementary building.

Finally, board members directed Superintendent LeBrun to solicit applications from architects for the new Norris Elementary building, appoint an architectural selection committee, and begin the process of having preliminary drawings presented to the school board this summer. After the preliminary presentations, a recommendation will be made to the school board naming the best architectural firm.

Web posted on Thursday, May 20, 2010

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