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Among various improvements to school buildings and technology countywide, the Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (ESPLOST) proposed for Walker County could also fund a new high school.

The system is currently home to LaFayette High School and Ridgeland High School, but with 500-plus new family homes already slated over the next few years, Walker County Schools Superintendent Damon Raines said a new secondary school may be in the cards.

"Today, we do not show any need for high school," said Raines. "However there are several large developments planned, already approved and beginning construction as early as this spring that would potentially push us into, you know, the potential of having to rezone to open up a third high school."

If the anticipated population growth calls for it, the district could build a standard school like the other two secondary options in the county. But officials are also considering instead creating a new career academy to service the two high schools.

"That would help you lessen the number of kids in [LaFayette High and Ridgeland High] at least half the time during the day because you're pulling some of your career pathways to the academy," Raines said.

The county has been looking into creating a career academy for years now, and even applied and was approved for a related grant last year, but the money was later put on hold, likely because of the pandemic, said Raines.

If officials do opt for the career academy over another traditional high school, there are more options to consider. The county could construct a brand-new building, or the district could look to renovate a building at Georgia Northwestern Technical College, where it already has an existing partnership with the technical school's work-study programs.

Raines stressed that the district is still in the early planning process of looking into the logistics for any new school.

If passed, the next round of ESPLOST would also help fund new auxiliary gyms for the county's middle schools and new buses and better technology as needed.

County residents will vote on the matter this March, after the school board approved putting it on the ballot on Dec. 9.

The referendum would continue the county's 1-cent sales tax on purchased goods for five more years, funneling that money to educational enhancement projects. In place since 1997, Walker County's ESPLOST has brought in more than $100 million as of September 2020.

"They keep our infrastructure technology and buses [up-to-date]," Raines said of the continued community support of the referendum over the years. "We just need their support to continue that penny coming in so that we can continue doing the things that we've done and they continue to connect that to our mission, which is graduating our students."

Contact Tierra Hayes at tierrathejournalist@timesfreepress.com.

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