Dalton, Ga., voters will decide this year if they want a new school with a price somewhere north of $50 million.
The city council voted 3-1 Monday to put a referendum on the ballot Nov. 7, asking voters to approve a $50 million bond issued by the Dalton Board of Education. School board member Steve Laird said the money would go toward building a new sixth- and seventh-grade school.
If administrators can move those grades, Laird said, they would bump the ninth graders down to the middle school. That would lower the populations at both Dalton Middle and High schools.
Based on the March 2017 enrollment figures, the new school would house about 1,200 students. The middle school, meanwhile, would drop from about 1,800 students to 1,200. The high school would fall from 1,900 students to 1,400.
Laird said the board of education is also considering moving all of the students from Morris Innovative High School to the middle school with eight- and ninth-graders. That would increase the student population by about 300 students, based on spring 2017 enrollment figures.
Dalton Public Schools CFO Theresa Perry said the middle and high schools are close to capacity. Based on Georgia Department of Education standards, Dalton Middle School was at 98.8 percent occupancy this spring. Dalton High School, meanwhile, was at 100.3 percent.
"You've got options," Laird said. "You're either going to expand the existing facilities, or you're going to create and build a new school."
Some residents spoke out against the referendum at Monday's meeting, led by the Dalton League of Women Voters, which is pushing to eliminate the city school system. The group would prefer the Whitfield County Board of Education handle the city's 8,000 students.
Members of the League of Women Voters are petitioning to put an item on the May 2018 ballot, asking residents if they want to dissolve the city's school system. Helen Crawford, president of the league, said she will educate voters on why the bond is a bad idea.
First, she said, voters might choose to dissolve the whole city system next year. Second, she does not believe the bond referendum is explicit enough.
"It's not worded very well," she said. "It doesn't have the details we feel are necessary."
Jevin Jensen, who is advocating against the bond, said the referendum does not explicitly say the money is going to build a new school. He said the Board of Education could pull a bait and switch, using the money for something else. He pointed to this year's E-SPLOST. After voters approved the 1 percent sales tax, the Board of Education reneged on the idea of using the money to build a new gym.
Jensen also pointed out the interest rate for the bond is not set. That's important to know the real cost of the loan, considering it will last 30 years. The referendum states the bond will not have an interest rate higher than 5.5 percent.
But Perry said the interest rate will probably be closer to 3 percent, based on how the market has flowed recently. Of course, the market can be unpredictable: She said that's why they built in a rate of up to 5.5 percent, in case they need it.
Laird said the Board of Education will meet with residents and help them understand the ins and outs of the bond before November.
"We plan to communicate what our best guesses are, so the community has the best information," he said. "We don't want them in there, just pulling the lever [at the polling site]. We want them to understand what the alternatives are and what the cost and benefits would be."
The Dalton City Council also voted, 4-0, to offer a lease renewal to Partnership Health Center, allowing it to operate at the Mack Gaston Community Center for one year. Partnership's owner, Georgia Mountains Health Services, now has to approve the proposal.
CEO Steven Miracle said his attorney is reviewing the lease. In May, Dalton Mayor Dennis Mock told Miracle the city would not renew Partnership's lease, which at the time was scheduled to expire July 31. Mock said Partnership was not open during normal business hours enough.
As part of the agreement, Partnership drug tests city employees after workplace injuries, an insurance requirement. Too often, Mock said, the clinic was not open when the city needed it. Miracle said he had not heard of the issue until it was apparently too late.
The city's decision angered some residents who receive treatment at the clinic. The council later voted to extend Partnership's lease through Aug. 31, buying it time to negotiate a longer solution.
The lease approved by the council Monday calls for Partnership to remain open for at least five straight days every week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.
Spring 2017 school enrollment
Dalton Middle School: 1,766
Dalton High School: 1,931
Morris Innovative High School: 324
Source: Georgia Department of Education
With new building (based on spring 2017 figures)
Sixth- and seventh-grade school: 1,197
Dalton Middle School: 1,449*
Dalton High School: 1,369
Source: Georgia Department of Education
*If Morris Innovative High School moved to the Dalton Middle School building