State of the schools: JCPS studies health of schools as it plans for the future

Fairview School is a top priority for Jackson County. JCPS photo Fairview School is a top priority for Jackson County. JCPS photo

A facilities study for Jackson County Schools that will help inform capital improvements for years to come found several schools in the county are overcrowded, something administration and school board members hope a traditional middle school will help alleviate.  

“I’m going to remind you that the number one item on our priority list is the cafeteria and classroom space at Fairview; the number two item is a traditional middle school,” Superintendent Dana Ayers told the school board during its Jan. 23 meeting.

Over a year ago, in discussion with the county commission, the school board named a traditional middle school as a top budget priority, second only to expansion at Fairview School that would create space for a cafeteria.

In order to move that process along, the school system contracted with Clark Nexsen architectural firm for a facilities study to determine the health of schools in the county and create a plan for needed upgrades. The county funded the study in its 2023-24 budget.

And while a middle school is a top priority for the school system, the planning process was intended to investigate appropriate use of space for classrooms and labs for all students and develop a master plan for athletic facilities at Smoky Mountain High School. Other needs within the school system addressed in the study include a new bus garage, erosion control at Scotts Creek and Blue Ridge School gym and performance space.  

Jackson County Schools is unique among The Smoky Mountain News’ four-county coverage area — Haywood, Jackson, Macon, and Swain counties, along with the Qualla Boundary — in that it does not have a typical middle school that exclusively serves sixth- through eighth-graders. Instead, there are four K-8 schools, serving almost 800 middle grade students — Fairview, Cullowhee Valley, Smokey Mountain Elementary and Scotts Creek.

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“I’m very pleased with the quality of the infrastructure that you have here,” said Chad Roberson of Clark Nexsen in his presentation to the board. “Everything ranked average to above average [according to DPI standards] so I think that’s wonderful for the ages of the structures that you have in here.” 

Part of the study included utilization scores for each school, which determines a percentage, based on how many square feet of a building are actually occupied by students. Jackson County schools had very high utilization scores throughout the school system, with every school, besides Scotts Creek, scoring over 100%. This means that schools are utilizing spaces that weren’t originally intended to be classroom space as classroom space.

For instance, in an ideal calculation, student capacity at Cullowhee Valley School would never be over 529. There are currently 604 students enrolled.

“Consistently, what we saw was K-5 was super utilized,” said Roberson. “More K-5 classrooms than the space profile indicates, and 6-8 consistently are missing multiple science classrooms and CTE components that you would typically have in a middle school environment … you guys are using every square inch of a lot of these buildings.” 

At Smokey Mountain Elementary, 100% capacity is 315 students, and there are currently 350 students enrolled.

Fariview has 137 more students than its total capacity.

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Fairview School scored below average on handicapped accessibility. Clark Nexson photo

“Fairview is definitely the [school] that is most challenged,” said Roberson.

Additionally, the study found that the cafeteria is undersized by a minimum of 1,000 square feet, and the kitchen is roughly 40% of the size it should be.

Additionally, the Fairview school building scored below average in accessibility.

“Where the existing cafeteria is, the location of the utilities back there, drainage in that area, a lot of the extra components are difficult to get to. Accessibility is pretty much nonexistent in those areas,” said Roberson.

The county’s bus garage will also need to be replaced eventually as it is a very old structure and doesn’t have adequate space to work on the vehicles. However, the study did find that it could likely be replaced on its current site.

According to Roberson, Blue Ridge School and Early College needs upgrades to its kitchen area and serving line.

“That needs to be addressed some time in your priority list,” said Roberson. “You’re serving students in the egress corridor, and that’s generally not a good idea.” 

As far as the athletic facility assessment, the school system has been looking at ADA upgrades to the football stadium, as well as improvements to the press box, accommodations for restrooms and concession stands.

The current stadium site is not large enough to accommodate an 8-lane track and field without substantial renovations to the stadium, so the study investigated where such a track could fit on campus.

Additionally, it looked at improvements for the baseball field and incorporating a softball field on campus.

news smokymtnhigh athletics

The potential design scheme for Smoky Mountain High School athletic facilities includes an 8-lane track and other upgrades. Clark Nexson photo

The existing baseball field resides in a floodplain and is situated about 20 feet lower than the football stadium.

The study found that a typical eight-lane track could fit in the field on the north side of campus. Additionally, the baseball field could be reoriented to add a softball field just to the east. The field house over the football stadium could be renovated to include restrooms and concession stands to support the baseball field, as well as upgrades to the football stadium.

Renovations for the football stadium include the ADA upgrades, as well as additions to the press box to hold restrooms, concession stands, green room and coaches’ area.

Overall, the study found that Fairview is the highest priority for the school system, with the need for a new kitchen, cafeteria and at least six classrooms, as well as ADA compliance throughout the school and site.

Next, the school system has been recommended to address Blue Ridge School’s kitchen and serving line, study possible sites for a future middle school, develop a plan for backfilling existing schools and address Smoky Mountain High School athletics. 

Clark Nexsen outlined a possible five-year timeline for the school system to address these projects. According to that schedule, in 2024 JCPS would need to fund design efforts for Fariview and Blue Ridge schools, and start due diligence on the middle school site, with the goal of tentatively starting design efforts for the middle school in 2025.

“The challenge with pushing these so they’re sequential is your middle school costs will become enormous,” said Roberson. “Basically, every seven to 10 years, the value of your schools are doubling to build new schools.”

Roberson estimated that 10 years from now, JCPS would be looking at $200 million for a middle school.

“That’s a very big number to rationalize,” he said. “It was not long ago that we were building middle schools for $40 million and now they’re $100 million.”

The Jackson County School Board and the Jackson County Commission will hold a joint meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 8, to discuss JCPS operations and the school system’s budget needs for the coming fiscal year. The study by Clark Nexsen is intended to help inform those decisions.  

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