JEKYLL ISLAND — Using conservative estimates, the Bryan County school system expects to grow by 3,500 students over the next decade, but officials say they cannot wait that long to prepare for the increase.
The Board of Education and top administrators held a retreat last weekend at the Westin Jekyll Island to discuss capital growth and strategic planning. On Friday, they discussed issues such as access to and cost of land, construction vs. renovation and how to pay for it all.
“We have to base what we do on what we know,” Superintendent Paul Brooksher told board members. “We can’t plan on what ifs.”
The district has grown by 2,600 students in the past decade, and all current buildings — if the district were to do nothing — would be at 95 percent to 100 percent capacity in five years. Of the projected growth over the next decade, about 3,300 additional students will be in South Bryan County and about 190 in North Bryan County.
Brooksher presented the board with five “cluster options,” three for South Bryan and two for North Bryan, although projects detailed in each cluster can be mixed and matched when the board decides to take action.
The first scenario includes renovating the current Richmond Hill High School to accommodate 3,000 students at its current location; new Richmond Hill elementary and middle schools to hold 1,350 and 1,200 students, respectively; moving ninth graders to the middle school and sixth graders to the elementary school; and a new transportation/maintenance/operations center. The total price tag of those projects would be $139 million.
Scenario two includes a new Richmond Hill High School to accommodate 3,000 students at a new location with a separate “ninth grade academy” building, a new elementary school for 1,350 students, a new middle school for 1,200 students at the current high school location and an operations center. That would cost $121 million.
The third South Bryan scenario includes a high school for 2,500 students at a new location plus a high school for 2,000 students at the current high school location, new elementary and middle schools the same size as the first two scenarios and an operations center for $156 million.
Board members seemed to agree that a 3,000-student high school in Richmond Hill is not the way to go, indicating that two high schools would give more students an opportunity to participate in athletics and other extracurricular activities. A single, 3,000-student high school would also be at full capacity by 2025.
“A high school with 3,000 students is out of the question,” board Chairman Eddie Warren said. “You’d have kids graduating with people they don’t even know.”
Brooksher agreed that two high schools “are in South Bryan’s future,” but indicated that their construction could be staggered. He added that a separate ninth grade building at a new Richmond Hill High School would provide the district with a “buffer” until a second new high school could be built.
Warren said he has yet to hear anyone favor one large high school.
“With this growth, we do have to start spending money on land acquisition and engineering,” he said. “With a 10-year plan, we can look ahead and then focus on how we get there.”
For North Bryan, scenario one includes a new 800-student middle school and a 1,000-student high school at the existing site, upgraded athletic facilities, a new wing at Bryan County Elementary School, an expanded operations and maintenance facility and an expanded central office. The cost is estimated at $52 million.
The second North Bryan scenario would include everything from the first scenario and add a new 800-student Lanier Primary School at a cost of $65 million.
As board members discussed the various ideas, they began to mix and match options that could be done at the same time. Board member Paine Bacon, for example, suggested doing a “big project with a little project,” such as building a new high school in Richmond Hill at the same time a new Lanier Primary School is being built.
The board also took the scenarios Brooksher presented and expanded on them. One idea that was discussed was to build a new Bryan County High School and expand the current middle school there into the high school. Board members agree that the two schools cannot continue to be joined physically in the future.
Board member Dennis Seger suggested that there is enough land at the current Lanier Primary to construct a new building there.
Board Vice Chairman Joe Pecenka said the new Richmond Hill Middle could be converted to a high school and the middle school moved to the current RHHS location.
“We owe it to the public to tell them the direction we are going and then secure the land and start planning,” Pecenka said. “We also need to do a cost-benefit analysis on renovating current buildings compared to how much longer they’ll be used.”
Brooksher said board members will continue to review options in light of bond debt, the potential for the renewal of the Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax on the ballot in 2017 and the district’s millage rate, which has not increased in seven years. The district’s current 1 percent ESPLOST, which funds capital and technology expenditures, expires March 31, 2018.
“I hear all the time from people that they understand we might have to raise the millage rate to do all this,” board member Marianne Smith said.
The board next meets at 6:30 p.m. today at McAllister Elementary School.