JASPER, Tenn. -- Site work is underway at the $33.9 million, 98,000-square-foot Jasper Middle School for 650-700 Marion County fifth through eighth graders as the contractor's heavy equipment dodges rainy days and a 2025 completion deadline looms, according to county officials.
Marion County Director of Schools Mark Griffith and Marion County Mayor David Jackson said they are glad to see the long-needed project making progress.
"We're still in the preliminary stages of it," Griffith said Wednesday by phone. "Weather cooperating, we're on still on the 18-24 (month) range as far as completion."
The funds from a $25 million loan acquired earlier and a recent $9 million loan to cover pandemic-induced construction price increases from initial estimates must be spent by January 2025, according to officials. Griffith said that target is reachable now that the project is fully funded.
"We did sell additional bonds this week to finance the building that will cost us over $33 million," Jackson said Wednesday by phone. "We have a 3.58% interest rate on our loan for 20 years so all the financing has been done, and we'll close on those bonds next week."
Jackson said the county's double-A bond rating helped keep the rate low.
"We're in the top 20% of Tennessee counties, financially, and we're tickled to death about that," he said.
(READ MORE: Jasper Middle School project's $9 million funding gap goes to Marion County Commission)
In August, Cleveland, Tennessee-based Tricon Inc. submitted a winning bid nearly $9 million higher than what the county borrowed earlier this year for the new school project.
Plans call for the school to be built on more than 18 acres owned by the county at the intersection of State Route 28 and State Route 150 Extension. The site is not far from the Jasper Elementary School and Marion County High School campuses, and some property lines are shared.
Jackson wishes the project had started earlier in the year.
"All this wet weather is going to slow progress down," Jackson said. "The weather will play a big part in the way this project moves. The rain this week and forecast for next week will basically bring it to a standstill. The cold temperatures coming in here in January and February will make the project crawl just like any other project does in the wintertime."
Both men said the project should regain traction as spring approaches.
"We're looking like the supply chain has loosened up, and we're going to be able to get materials on site when needed," Griffith said. "We have been in correspondence with Sequachee Valley Electric Cooperative and the city of Jasper for water lines and electrical. Hopefully, with some nicer weather, we'll be able to push ahead."
About $700,000 was saved on the project from the redesign of sewer pumping equipment, Griffith said, and that will come off the total cost.
When it opens, the school likely will house fewer students than the 650-700 it's designed for, but the new facility will also attract students whose parents want them to go to the new school in Jasper, he said.
"Historically, in the past with new construction, we've picked up 40 or 50 kids," Griffith said.
The current Jasper Middle School dates back more than six decades when it was built as a high school. Jasper Middle is the oldest school building in the county, according to officials.
A 2022 state comptroller's report on capital spending for local school districts shows the financial struggles school systems face.
(READ MORE: Hamilton County Commission OKs $4.3 million design contract for new Tyner school)
"As building costs continue to rise, districts recognize that delays in obtaining financing and construction approval can increase the final cost," the report released in May stated.
In the most recent inventory of the state's public school needs, the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations reported that local officials across the state projected a need for 69 new schools in the next five years at an average cost of $39 million each.
According to the comptroller's report, school districts foresee rising prices and supply-chain problems dramatically affecting some projects. In fiscal year 2017-18, one district built a school for 900 students that cost $20 million. In 2021, the same size school might cost $30 million.
Contact Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.