PRC proposes building new elementary school

Published 5:04 pm Friday, March 2, 2007

Parents, teachers, principals and students gathered in the Pearl River Central High School cafeteria Thursday evening to hear presentations concerning the needs of the Pearl River Central school district for space for the students.

Pearl River County School District Superintendent Dennis Penton and attorney JIm Young of Watkins and Young make the presentations about the district’s needs, including the need to build a new elementary school to deal with the district’s steadily growing population of students.

“We have 3142 students,” Penton said. “That’s growth of about five percent over last year. But the school system began in 1925 with 126 students.”

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The bulk of his presentation contained statistics of where the District stands now.

If the McNeill campus gets one more student, the school will need another class, he said.

“The problem is,” Penton said, “we don’t have another classroom. We don’t have a say in whether a family moves here or not, but we are obligated to provide education for any child that lives in our district.”

Every classroom at the McNeill campus is full, and there is no place to put another class.

“Other places use floating teachers,” Penton continued, “In elementary classes, you just can’t float a teacher. It won’t work and is not conducive to good education for those students.”

He described floating a teacher as putting all the teaching materials on a cart, and the teacher moving from classroom to classroom.

Another problem facing the district is transportation, Penton said. High school students generally drive themselves to school or car pool rather than taking a bus. The students that need the buses are the younger elementary children and the middle school children. Currently, there are 32 bus routes transporting 2,420 students. Eight out of 10 students that ride a bus to school are elementary students. Growth has been noticeably greater in the lower grades. Decentralizing the elementary schools will cut down on transport costs and transport time for the children, Penton said.

“The growth of the school district has been concentrated in and around the Salem area,” Penton said. “If you watch the school buses leaving (PRC Elementary’s) parking lot, you’ll see that only about six turn north and the rest head south.”

Salem is the proposed site for the new elementary school because it is the fastest growing area in the district and because it has unleased, usable land that is flat with fairly good drainage, he said. The preparation costs of the land would be minimal compared to other 16th sections. It affords the opportunity to enhance the 16th section land, and that would bring better opportunity for commercialization of more 16th sections, which would raise revenues in the district.

“It has been proven,” Penton said, “that when you have a school close by, more people move into that area and they bring business with them.”

According to the figures presented by Penton, the cost of building an elementary school is much lower than building a high school due to the extracurricular activities that high school students need, such as basketball and band and drama. 

An elementary school would cost about $175 per square foot. The proposed facility for a kindergarten through sixth grade school would cost approximately $14.85 million with a built in contingency fund and including furniture and architectual and engineering fees.

The cost to build a brand new high school for 1,200 students, including a gym and all the other extracurricular facilities, would be in the $35 million to $38 million range. 

Young said the school district can raise approximately $10 million through issuing bonds. The 4.5 mills needed to pay back those bonds would cost approximately $59 a year, or about $1 a week to a resident with a home valued at $100,000 and a a car valued at $10,000, not market value but the tax-assessed value. If the revenue base expands in the district with commercial expansions and tax revenues grow in proportion, the mills needed could drop.

A previous bond issue for a new school did not pass the voters about 15 years ago, however a bond issue did pass in 1998 to build 40 new classrooms at the McNeill campus. Those classrooms are now full. Those bonds are still being paid off, and the $10 million bond issue would be in addition to the old one. Young said both bond issues easily can be paid back by the tax base as it stands now.

The fund balance is nearly $7 million. Minus the need for the board to keep $1.15 million in the fund balance, the district has $5.85 million to use. Of that amount, $3 million is reserved for capital improvements. If the board raises $10 million with bonds, that creates a building budget of $15.85 million.

“Everything we do must be done within pocketbook restraints,” Penton said.

Young said there is $15 million to work with and that is all the state will allow, and PRC doesn’t qualify for any other options.

Answering several questions from parents, Penton reiterated the proposed new school would be a K-6 school and the McNeill campus would also be a K-6 school.

“This is because that is where our growth is.Growth is not going to stop,” he said. “We don’t know by how much (we’re going to grow), but we know it isn’t going to stop.”

The time frame will be approximately two years before anyone would walk into a the new school. That includes the it takes to schedule an election on issuing the bonds, issuing bonds, drawing up plans, construction and any other planning that is needed, Penton said.

When asked what would happen when the elementary students reached high school, Penton answered, “Not to sound flip, but we have to have faith. Over the past eight years our ability has doubled so the fact is a district can’t afford to do what is best in 10 years they must do what they can afford to do for tomorrow. We will have to have more space on this campus and creating space for 750 students will create more space here for the high school and middle school, and it is a lot cheaper than building a high school.”

Board member Byron Stockstill summed it up saying, “As a board we listen… believe it or not. We are in a precarious situation when it comes to making decisions for the district. Everyone has legitimate concerns and we must accommodate the majority. Whether right or wrong, the decisions we make is for the majority. We really do hear … we just have a difficult decision to make.”