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Enota school project dispute reaches boiling point
Discussion of construction issues set for July 18 meeting
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Gainesville Board of Education meeting

When: 6 p.m. July 18

Where: Public Safety Complex, 701 Queen City Parkway, Gainesville

More than 18 meetings have been held with various groups about the proposed construction of a new building for Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy in Gainesville. But pushback about the process and plans for the elementary school’s Smartville garden have caused dissension.

The issues are set to be discussed at a school board meeting next week.

Here’s a look at how the controversy came to this point.

Why Enota needs a new building

Gainesville Board of Education members toured schools in August to determine their needs.

It was obvious the 60-year-old Enota building had major issues.

“Students are housed in deteriorating modular classrooms. Its entire plumbing system must be replaced. Its gym is half-sized and cannot accommodate the student body,” school documents read. “It has inadequate storage, work rooms, conference room, front office and administrative areas. Its traffic patterns are dangerous, and its parking is insufficient and frustrating to employees and visitors.

“In summary, the facility is far below the standard of our other elementary schools.”

The Regional Educational Service Agency recommended major renovation or replacement of the school.

In December, Gainesville school leaders informed the community that rebuilding the school would be more cost-effective. The recent passage of an education sales tax made the plans possible.

How the plans were proposed

A letter sent to Enota parents dated Dec. 18 laid out plans to begin building on the current site as soon as the school year was over.

“We have had the opportunity to meet with the Enota School Governance Council to share with them and solicit from them ideas about how to best move forward with this project,” the letter from Superintendent Wanda Creel and Principal Wesley Roach states. “We are in the early stages of planning for this construction project, but we want to be sure to communicate with our Enota family what is currently known.

Information meetings were hosted in April for the community.

How the community reacted

Concerns about traffic and where the students would be housed surfaced quickly. But those issues seemed to take a back seat when concerns were raised about the school’s Smartville garden.

Superintendent Wanda Creel said school system leaders met with school faculty, the parent-teacher organization and the school governance council to talk about how best to preserve as much of the garden as possible.

A design proposal presented in April included leveling the site, rather than maintaining the garden in its original location. Creel said the grading is needed in order to meet requirements for the disabled, create better traffic flow and meet requirements for emergency vehicle access.

Some community members suggested school leaders take a step back and determine whether the new building could be constructed without significantly altering the garden.

Community members noted many of the plants were too established to move and no money had been set aside for a new garden. School officials have said some of the landscaping budget for the new school may be able to go toward the garden.

A retaining wall option was discussed but would cost about $132,000 and create a sort of alley between the garden and building.

A brainstorming session held in April drew about 20 people, but no immediate solutions were considered, rather some asked the project be delayed.

About the garden

The Smartville garden project was started in 2008 after erosion created problems in front of the school. With the help of the Fockele family and the Fockele Garden Co., the project turned about a half-acre of space into the garden.

The North Georgia Community Foundation provided a $20,000 grant to help pay for the project. Sally Meadors, former principal at Enota, said more than $100,000 had been spent on the garden.

The garden includes a series of water collection cisterns, a 10-foot water tower with a drip-irrigation system, metal figures, ornamental and drought-resistant plants and a path through the garden.

Decisions made

The school board voted at a meeting June 2 to go with the original design for the school, which would destroy the existing garden. Construction was planned to start in May 2017. The board meeting was held a different day than the board’s regularly scheduled meeting and public notice of the meeting was limited. The Enota school was not listed on the agenda for the meeting.

Board chairwoman Delores Diaz said a survey of faculty was taken May 23 and she believed a quick response was needed to the results.

She announced the decision at a June 6 regularly scheduled work session.

Speakers at the June 20 meeting questioned the school board’s decisions and lamented the board’s response has been slow.

How it has affected the board

The board has not approved two sets of meeting minutes, one for the called meeting June 2 and one for the regular meeting June 6. When the minutes were called on the agenda, no board member spoke, offered motions to approve or disapprove nor posed questions.

Some board members have since said they want to have more discussion on the Enota project, which is why they didn’t vote to approve the minutes.

In a self-assessment board members completed, a majority of school board members indicated they believe the district has communication and public relations problems.

But board members were silent at a June 30 called meeting when Diaz asked how the board could improve.

What’s next

The board is set to discuss the Enota issue along with the minutes at a meeting July 18.

If it continues to move forward as planned, the new building would be two stories and would include 60 classrooms. It would include about 130,000 square feet, about the same size as the new school in Mundy Mill subdivision that was approved Monday night. That building will cost $17.4 million.