Dalton, Ga., school board chairman, critic dispute cost of new school

Dalton, Ga., school board chairman, critic dispute cost of new school

October 18th, 2017 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Students fill the hall between classes Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016, at Dalton High School.

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

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Jevin Jensen

Jevin Jensen

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Three weeks before a make-or-break vote, an outspoken critic called a potential new Dalton, Ga., school an overpriced pipe dream that won't actually help students.

"This may be one of the most expensive two-grade schools ever built in Georgia," Jevin Jensen, a board member of the League of Women Voters of the Dalton Area, wrote in an editorial provided to the Times Free Press this week.

Voters will decide whether the school board can issue a $50 million bond (plus interest) for the school Nov. 7, when they weigh in on a referendum. The money would build a new academy for sixth- and seventh-graders. Students in eighth and ninth grades would attend Dalton Middle School, and sophomores through seniors still would go to the high school. The board hopes spreading the grades more can prevent future overcrowding.

But is Jensen's statement true? Is the construction more expensive than a typical new building? School officials say the math is a little difficult to fact check because different people count the figures differently.

Here's the base number, though: Dalton City Schools administrators project the total cost of a sixth- and seventh-grade academy to sit at about $80 million. That would include about $30 million in interest, paid out over 30 years.

The school itself would be 190,000 square feet.

But the debate centers on the cost of construction. Some parts of the school's bill need to be thrown out, Jensen and school board chairman Rick Fromm say. For starters, the $30 million in interest. Then there is the $1.8 million to actually buy the land.

Jensen said that leaves the school board with a bill of $48.8 million, or $257 per square foot.

That price tag, he said, is too high. He pointed to a February 2015 article in School Planning & Management, a trade publication. According to its author, new middle schools in Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Mississippi cost an average of $194.17 per square foot.

By comparison, Dalton's projected new school building is 32 percent more expensive.

And, Jensen wrote to the Times Free Press, this is not for a typical three-grade middle school: "This is only [a] 2 grade academy."

But Fromm and other school officials pushed back on Jensen's calculations this week. They said the $257 per square foot estimation is off base, arguing that other parts of the bill should not be included in the estimate. The biggest cut? An $8 million bill for "site work."

The property for the new school, which would sit across the North Dalton Bypass from the current middle school, has not been developed. Workers need to test the dirt, lay pipes, pave roads, pave parking lots, install sewage lines and dig a water runoff. Fromm argues that expense shouldn't be part of the construction comparison; most places don't have to clear those hurdles.

Rick Fromm

Rick Fromm

Photo by hamiltonhealth.com

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He also believes people should factor out the $2.6 million architecture fee and the $3 million set-aside fund in case the cost of the project unexpectedly increases. Without those funds, the construction will cost about $33.2 million.

Per square foot, the school would pay about $175. Compared with Jensen's estimate, that price is much more in line with the average construction cost.

Fromm also compared this project to the cost of construction for Whitfield County Schools' upcoming projects: North Whitfield Middle School and Valley Point Middle School. Per square foot, Fromm said, the two projects each cost about $185.

More teachers?

But even if the price of the school is in line with other estimates, Jensen said, the new academy would not actually help students. To make a real impact, he said, the board needs to set aside extra money for extra teachers.

"This initiative will extract more than $80 million from local taxpayers to accomplish nothing more than an expensive fruit basket turnover where the same number of students will be taught by the same number of teachers, just in different places," he said.

He added: "If overcrowding is the essential problem the board wants to address, this new public school does very little to correct it."

Fromm, for his part, said the board of education doesn't even have an option to add new teachers right now. The Dalton middle and high schools don't have enough space.

Asked how many teachers the board could add with the new school, Fromm said he couldn't answer for sure. (The project itself could take 2 1/2 years.) It's hard to predict how much money the board would set aside for new teachers. He projected the cost to be about $70,000 per new teacher.

"We have to look and see: Is that something the community will pay for?" Fromm told the Times Free Press. "But we certainly can't do it right now because we don't have the space. We can't even have the conversation. If we don't do anything, we certainly won't reduce the class size, unless we use [portable classrooms.]"

The portable classroom issue was unpopular last month, when Fromm and other board members floated the idea of moving the entire sixth grade to such units. Someone submitted an anonymous letter from the staff of sixth grade teachers, telling the board that the group almost unanimously objected to the idea. The board chose not to discuss the idea further.

Earlier this month, 1,805 students attended Dalton Middle School and 1,902 students attended Dalton High School. Combined, the schools are about 2 percent above the state standards for maximum capacity.

Individual class sizes are a little more difficult to estimate, because different classes have different maximum teacher-to-student ratios. For example, an English class needs to be smaller than a physical education class. But on average, the student-to-teacher ratio for the middle and high schools is about 19 1/2 to one.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.

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