published Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

Whitfield school plan draws support


by Adam Crisp

DALTON, Ga.—At 46 years old, Eastbrook Middle School has seen better days.

On Monday, during a Whitfield County School Board hearing on whether to rebuild the school for $24.2 million, students and teachers described the aged facility's bug infestations, falling ceilings and dark, moldy patches.

"Eastbrook is not a good place to teach, and it is not a good place to learn," said teacher Ralph Noble to raucous applause in a packed auditorium at Southeast Whitfield High School.

More than a dozen residents spoke in favor of a new school, but there was opposition.

"It seems to me $24 million is an awful lot of money to spend," said resident Lawrence Headrick. "I'm not at all convinced that simply tearing down one school to build another is a good way to go."

But school leaders contend Eastbrook was poorly built in a bad area and will require years of expensive maintenance that will cost far more than building a new school.

School leaders want to tear down the school's classroom wing and rebuild it on top of current softball and baseball fields. They plan to finance the school with a one-penny special purpose local option sales tax renewal that may come before voters in November.

School leaders could hardly talk about the school without talking about how they would pay for it, so a big part of Monday's forum centered on the sales tax renewal, which is publicly opposed by Dalton Mayor David Pennington.

School leaders estimate about $15 million in debts left over from building projects completed during the previous five-year SPLOST.

They lump in the previous debt and the local share of the Eastbrook project when calculating a predicted 13.7 percent increase in property taxes if the SPLOST isn't passed.

"There are two ways to pay for the debts," said Kenny Sheppard, the system's financial officer, stating that voters could either vote for the SPLOST and get a new school or vote against it and see a large spike in taxes.

But some residents weren't convinced, and one speaker said the system was resorting to "scare tactics" by promising higher taxes if the SPLOST isn't approved.

"As I understand it, you could pay back your [loans] ... we don't have to take that money," said Mary Thulma Norris. "We could pay that back and not owe $30 million."

Parents and teachers, who outnumbered the detractors, elicited big cheers when painting the issue as one of fairness. They said Eastbrook is the worst school in a system filled with newer facilities.

"Every day that it rains, the ceiling leaks and in the boys' locker room, the dang ceiling is falling down," said Raygan Henry, a current student. Rebuilding the school would make it "a totally better school, and we'd have the same chance as every other kid in Whitfield County."

The school system must approve bids for the Eastbrook project by March 6.

about Adam Crisp...

Adam Crisp covers education issues for the Times Free Press. He joined the paper's staff in 2007 and initially covered crime, public safety, courts and general assignment topics. Prior to Chattanooga, Crisp was a crime reporter at the Savannah Morning News and has been a reporter and editor at community newspapers in southeast Georgia. In college, he led his student paper to a first-place general excellence award from the Georgia College Press Association. He earned ...

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