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Light turnout for first school forum
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About 50 people Monday night attended the first of two forums on the need for a new high school in South Bryan County.

The session, which lasted about 90 minutes, was held at Richmond Hill High School. Another forum is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. tonight at Richmond Hill Middle School.

“We appreciate you being here and showing interest in our school system,” Board of Education President Eddie Warren said. “We’re trying to get information from the community on the growth we’re experiencing and what our plans should be.”

Superintendent Paul Brooksher said the process is important because “while it may not impact our children, it will impact our children’s children,” adding that a new school has to have a lifespan of at least 40 years.

The school board knows that the Richmond Hill area needs at least one new high school in the immediate future, and at some point will need two. Officials are seeking input from residents before moving forward. The questions they are asking pertain specifically to how people view one new large high school versus two medium-sized schools.

Attendees Monday night were seated at tables in groups of eight while a school administrator at each table recorded feedback to specific questions.

While many answers included a recognition that a large high school would mean fewer opportunities for students (sports teams and student government were cited), the general consensus appeared to be in favor of that option. A divided community was mentioned several times as an objection to having two high schools, including a financial strain on business support for athletics.

One student-athlete in attendance brought up the fact that a single, larger school would mean more travel time for teams as such a school would possibly be placed in a region of similar-sized schools generally found in the Atlanta area.

Brooksher said RHHS is currently at about 2,100 students, and growth projections put it at about 3,000 students in 10 years. The board must decide if it should build two new schools for roughly 1,500 students each or one large school for 3,000 students. It would cost taxpayers about $100 million for the former option and about $85 million for the latter. Operating costs for two new schools compared to one would be up to $2 million more annually.

Brooksher said neither option would detract from amenities or offerings, noting that two new schools would still have a fine arts auditorium at each and new athletic facilities. The timeline for any new project start to finish is 36 to 48 months.

“The conversation needs to occur that South Bryan will eventually need two high schools,” Brooksher said. “It’s just a matter of when.”

Almost 700 people responded to an online survey the district offered earlier this month that asked what issues people most wanted to know about as the process moves forward. Brooksher said the most popular issue — cited by 57 percent of respondents — was about districting.

“With two high schools, we would definitely need to draw new attendance lines,” he said. “That would depend on things like location and student population density. We would not use demographics.”

Other top concerns from the survey included academics (51 percent), construction timeline (38 percent), growth projections (37 percent) and athletics (23 percent).

There was also a general consensus from attendees Monday night that the district should increase the millage rate to pay for new projects. Brooksher also noted that South Bryan County will need an additional elementary school and middle school in the near future and that schools in North Bryan County are in need of upgrades.

The current school millage is 15.537, which has not increased in several years. Brooksher said one mill raises about $1.2 million in revenue per year. The district also has a 1 percent E-SPLOST that raises about $5 million annually. It expires in March 2018 and the school board is expected to vote soon on placing a renewal before voters next year. The board can also ask voters to approve general obligation bonds to pay for expansion.

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