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No relief for crowded schools

Despite using every nook and cranny available, Swain County schools are still struggling to track down classroom space for its exploding student population.

The number of students at Swain County High School has shot up so dramatically that the school has outgrown its auditorium and must now hold two assemblies instead of one on every occasion.

“That’s a time issue, and sometimes, a money issue,” said Regina Mathis, principal of Swain County High, which often has to pay speakers double the price.

In the 2002-2003 school year, 1,679 students attended the county’s schools. By 2008-2009, that number that had grown to 1,840.

Swain County High School shows the biggest rise in students, with an increase of 110 students in the last six years.

The high school has tried to accommodate that growth by asking four teachers to share classroom space. It has converted an auto mechanics classroom into a regular classroom, even using the hallway that leads up to the room as lab space, and transformed an equipment storage room next to the gymnasium into a small classroom.

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What used to be a student lounge with couches is now office space for support staff. Where chorus students formerly practiced singing, history classes have taken their place.

One math teacher and his students must trek out to a doublewide from the school each day, cutting time spent in class.

“That’s a little inconvenient for kids if it’s raining,” said Mathis.

And the problem is not limited to just the high school. Elementary schools in Swain have even held art and music classes on stages in the past.

Running out of time

The problem is not new. A committee was formed to assess building needs in January 2007, and several solutions have been discussed. But with little funding to implement the solutions, Swain schools have been left struggling.

In 2009, Swain County qualified for a federal school bond program that gives lenders a tax break for funding school construction. But the county has been unable to lock down any lenders so far, County Manager Kevin King said.

According to the committee’s plans, Swain West Elementary will ideally be first to get new classrooms. Next in line would be Swain East Elementary.

The committee’s plans also call for a new $25 to $30 million high school to be built on a 50-acre tract the county purchased a few years ago for that purpose near the current high school site.

Meanwhile, the middle school would be cut down to only seventh and eighth grades and move into the old high school. The old middle school could then become a third elementary school for the county.

Mathis said the committee has looked at installing $1 million or $2 million additions, but such small expansions would only be a stopgap measure.

“Why put that in if we’re going to have $25 million for a new high school?” asked Mathis. “Sure, I’d love to have more classrooms, but in the long run, it doesn’t make sense.”

Sam Pattillo, facilities director for Swain County’s schools, said this is only a preliminary plan, however, not something that’s been set in stone.

“It’s a start for discussion,” said Pattillo.

King pointed out that building the high school alone might result in a whopping 15 cent tax increase to cover $1.9 million each year in bond payments.

Rather than employ a piecemeal approach right now, King recommends tackling the entire problem in 2018, when the school system’s current debt of about $900,000 will be mostly paid off.

“It’s not attainable right now,” said King. “If it’s not attainable, then there’s really no need to pursue it.”

But Mathis said eight years might be a long time to wait.

“Looking over the last eight years, we’ve grown 27 percent,” said Mathis. “What if within the next eight years, we grow 27 more?”

The county will soon begin reaping dividends from the North Shore Road cash settlement. At a minimum, the county will receive around $800,000 a year in interest, and it could grow much larger if the federal government follows through on paying the full settlement it has promised.

The interest off the cash settlement fund could potentially be set aside for school construction.

But school board member Jerry McKinney said he’s concerned about tying up the North Shore money in a reoccurring expense like bond payments.

“I’d rather see other ways of funding construction needs,” said McKinney. “But education should get the lion’s share [of the settlement], I believe.”

Other options for getting the new high school built before 2018 include holding a bond referendum to ask the people whether they’d support a tax increase to build the high school. It’s doubtful that such a major tax increase would pass in Swain or anywhere else, however.

McKinney, who is running for county commissioner, said having such a small tax base in Swain always poses a challenge for school funding.

But McKinney understands space needs in Swain County schools are a pressing issue and new that facilities are necessary.

McKinney pointed out that Swain County still had the same number of gymnasiums it had when he was a boy.

“The old one at the middle school is 70 plus years old,” said McKinney. “We keep renovating, we keep adding to it, trying to keep it up. Because of that there is a need in this community.”

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