Few show up to hear plans for new Dalton, Ga., school

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

Dalton Schools officials came to St. Joseph's Catholic Church on Tuesday night to defend their $50 million plan to reduce overcrowding, armed with a slide show presentation, historical population data and fiscal projections.

And then they looked out into the crowd - at all five people.

"Obviously, there's people that want information," Board of Education Chairman Dr. Rick Fromm said. "And there's those that have enough information, and they don't feel the need to be there. ... I guess we'll find out [how the people feel] with the vote."

Interim Superintendent Don Amonett, Chief Financial Officer Theresa Perry and school board members have taken their presentation around town for the past month, hoping to sell voters on a plan to build a sixth- and seventh-grade school. The issue is on a referendum on the Nov. 7 ballot.

photo Dalton Middle School is shown in this 2011 staff file photo.
photo Don Amonett, deputy superintendent for Dalton Public Schools

If voters approve the plan, the school district will take out a $50 million bond to build the new facility. Freshmen would then move from Dalton High School to Dalton Middle School. The latter would host eighth- and ninth-graders; the high school would hold sophomores, juniors and seniors.

Administrators hope the moves relieve crowded hallways and classrooms at both places. As of Tuesday afternoon, Spokeswoman Pat Holloway said, 1,902 students were at Dalton High School, about 1.4 percent above capacity based on state standards. At Dalton Middle School, the population was 1,805, which is 3.1 percent above.

Some skeptics have criticized the language of the referendum, which allows the school system to issue bonds with an interest rate of up to 5.5 percent. The loan lasts 30 years, and critics believe a high interest rate could break property owners' backs. Jevin Jenson, an advocate of combining Whitfield County's and Dalton's school systems, said an interest rate above 5 percent would put the total loan north of $100 million.

On Tuesday, Perry pushed back.

She said the school system's bond attorney projects the interest rate to sit at 3.25 percent. Over 30 years, the principal and interest would cost a combined $82 million. Perry told the scant crowd at Tuesday's meeting that she doesn't foresee the interest rate changing dramatically in the next six months.

Fromm said school board members set the allowable rate so high to give them flexibility. If they set the cap on the referendum at 4 percent, for example, they would legally be unable to issue the bonds if the rate hit 4.1 percent. By why go all the way to 5.5 percent? Fromm said that simply was the bond attorney's recommendation.

If the bond passes, workers would construct the new building across from Dalton Middle School on the North Dalton Bypass. A landowner will donate 32 acres, and Fromm said the board will look into buying an adjacent 25 acres for about $1.7 million. They would hold some of the land in case they wanted to build another building in the future.

Trey Kenemer , one of the five people in attendance, said he is not sure how he will vote Nov. 7. He came to learn more about the projected interest rate, as well as why school officials say they need the new building.

He asked how they could pay off the bond responsibly "so that when I'm here in this same seat 30 years from now, I'm not talking about the $45 million in interest that we just paid."

Fromm told him they could look into paying off large chunks of the debt through future rounds of the education special purpose local option sales tax, or E-SPLOST.

Kim Littell, who has attended other community meetings on this issue, said he has changed his vote on the referendum from a no to a soft yes in recent weeks.

"You start looking at $50 million, that's a lot of money," he said. "And we're a heavily taxed area. But there's certainly a need for it."

The school system held a similar public meeting at First United Methodist Church last month and administrators estimate they drew a crowd of about 100 people.

Latino students make up 69 percent of the population at Dalton Schools, and central office administrators said they planned Tuesday's meeting with the hopes of engaging the minority community. Still, they are hopeful for a better showing at a meeting with the Coalition of Latino Leaders at Delray Farms Fresh Market on Oct. 12 at 7:15 p.m.

They have also met with the PTAs of the majority-Latino Blue Ridge and Park Creek elementary schools.

The school system will also host a meeting at Mack Gaston Community Center on Oct. 30 at 6 p.m.

Contact Staff Writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.