Commissioners have already been discussing the project for several years, moving through the process of assessing the needs, hiring engineers and architects to design the project and putting it out to bid. Financial Director Lori Hall reminded the board that the deadline to secure the loan was quickly approaching.
At the last commissioner meeting in February following a public hearing, the board voted unanimously to approve the lowest bid of $8.1 million from New Atlanta out of Charlotte as well as a resolution to finance the project and refinance some existing debt for a total loan amount of $10.5 million.
Newly-elected Commissioner Josh Young had some concern about the project at that time, but since he was coming in at the end of those discussions, he voted in favor of it.
“I wasn’t here for the discussions, but I think we’re just putting a Band-Aid on it,” he said during the Feb. 9 meeting. “I think it could be better spent.”
At the beginning of the Feb. 26 called meeting, Commission Chairman Jim Tate said Young called him a couple of weeks ago with what he likes to call “commissioner anguish” about the vote he had taken Feb. 9.
“He expressed he had significant reservations about proceeding with this project and presented a very quick scenario of a different idea,” Tate explained. “It may be too late in the process to introduce the idea, but I told him he had my support to introduce this concept. He thinks we’re making a big mistake and that there’s a better solution.”
Young said he wasn’t there to undermine a project that’s been in the works for several years, but if he didn’t take the opportunity to present a potentially better plan, he’d regret it.
“It’s not my job to play Monday morning quarterback but if I kept it inside, I’d regret it,” he said.
Instead of spending $8 million right now on what he called a Band-Aid, Young said he’d like to see the county step back and create a plan that could solve all of the school facility problems in Macon. He said he’d done some research and put together a plan that would give the Macon elementary schools more capacity while also solving the issues at Macon Middle and Franklin High.
Instead of investing $8 million into renovating a 1974 building, Young suggested demolishing it and building an entirely new facility on the tract. He said the county could also increase the footprint of that property by purchasing 14 acres of adjacent land from Phil Drake, which would increase the Macon Middle property from 34 acres to 48 acres. The additional property could then be enough room to build a new high school as well.
“If we plan this right we can at this point shift all grades up,” Young said.
Kindergarten through third grade would be at the elementary schools, fourth and fifth at the intermediate school, sixth through eighth at the middle and ninth through 12th at the high school.
He also said the county should consider more consolidation efforts to save money and to free up older school facilities to be sold off in an attempt to save more money. Rabun County Schools system across the state line in Georgia is a good example of those efforts paying off, Young added.
With $25 million in the county’s fund balance, Young suggested a combination of bond, loan and fund balance to pay for the project in order to avoid raising taxes for at least another five years.
While it sounds good in theory, the reality is stepping back from the Macon Middle project right now would mean the county would be out of $1 million already put into the preliminary work and also Young’s plan would take 10 years to complete. In the meantime, the work needed at Macon Middle is more immediate.
Commissioner Ronnie Beale said it was important for Young to know the history of the project. As a liaison to the school board for many years, Beale said he’s confident both boards had explored all possibilities and came to the best plan for improvements. He’s aware there’s still much to be done to get all the facilities where they need to be, but reminded him of how far they’ve come.
“I think we’ve done more than anyone without a tax increase,” he said, adding the county has spent $25 million on school facilities in the last 10 years.
Beale said he’s been assured the project will add decades to Macon Middle’s lifespan — something he considers more than a bandage. He also questioned the ability to put a new high school at the same location considering there are already congestion issues on Wells Grove Road, adding that the Department of Transportation had already looked at that possibility.
“I appreciate Josh looking at these things but unfortunately these are things we’ve already looked at. We’ve looked at that land before Drake acquired it and most of the land isn’t usable because it’s in a swamp,” Beale said.
Beale did agree the old Macon Middle School wasn’t designed for today’s safety protocols because there are too many points of entry, but the county has also taken steps to improve security measures.
“For now, I think this is the best we can do. We can’t lose a million dollars to postpone this thing again because that’s all we’d be doing,” he said. “We don’t even know what schools will look like in 10 years because of COVID.”
Commissioner Gary Shields, a former educator and school board liaison, said he agreed with Beale that the plans for the renovation need to move forward now. He said that the road could not handle the traffic that a new high school would create, especially during sporting events. However, he does support Young’s suggestion that more long-range planning needs to be done.
Commissioner Paul Higdon said he strongly supported Young’s plan and was also in favor of a more comprehensive plan for replacing school facilities.
One part of Young’s presentation that all commissioners agreed on is to add a new athletic building to the scope of work so that students have somewhere to change clothes prior to a game.
After more discussion, the board voted 3 to 2 in favor of moving forward with the Macon Middle renovations as previously planned. Young and Higdon were opposed.