This time last year, Hall County Schools was putting the finishing touches on renovations to a campus in South Hall that would become the home of Cherokee Bluff middle and high school for the 2018-19 academic year.
It was a big addition that affected many as schools in South Hall were shuffled.
Flowery Branch High had been moved to the Spout Springs Road location as overcrowding became a problem; C.W. Davis Middle moved into the former Flowery Branch High grounds; South Hall Middle to the former Davis Middle campus; and the old South Hall Middle location hosted the Academies of Discovery.
But with renovations complete for Cherokee Bluff, South Hall Middle moved back home next to Johnson High and was joined by the World Language Academy middle-schoolers and the Da Vinci Academy.
This allowed Davis Middle to revert to its old campus, Flowery Branch High to come home, and it opened space at the Spout Springs location for Cherokee Bluff middle and high schools.
But Cherokee Bluff has many needs going forward, and Hall Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said the middle school will need its own, independent space sooner rather than later as enrollment surges in South Hall.
Meanwhile, Hall County Schools is planning to pump about $800,000 into renovations and upgrades at the Early College at Jones facility in the Chicopee Mill area of Gainesville as enrollment continues to surge.
The dual-enrollment school, which partners with Brenau University, the University of North Georgia and Lanier Technical College, allows Hall students to earn college credit as they complete a high school diploma.
The facility also houses the Newcomer Academy, which serves as an intensive immersion program for immigrant students of high school age.
Students there have a 95 percent pass rate, Schofield said, and 50 percent earn post-secondary credits.
Moreover, Early College serves many first-generation college students, Schofield said.
But significant improvements are needed to continue to meet Early College’s mission and growing student body.
For example, funding approved in early 2019 by the board of education, which comes from special purpose local option sales tax revenue, is allocated for renovations to eight classrooms, including additional technology, marker boards, furniture and other materials.
Plans are set to convert the cafeteria into a modern student center, Schofield said.
The converted multi-function space will also allow Early College to better accommodate parent-teacher meetings and other after-school events.
The gymnasium also needs refurbishing, such as new LED lighting, a sound system, and other audio and visual equipment.
Finally, Early College does not have space or capacity to offer college-level “hard sciences” courses, Schofield said, such as biology, chemistry and physics.
But the new funding will allow for the construction of a fully operational science laboratory, with the potential to also establish a community clinic to both train students and serve the public.
Schofield described it as one of the “most exciting projects I’ve seen in my 30 years of education.” He anticipates new course offerings resulting from these renovations to launch in the fall of 2019. Additional facilities needed also include a new athletic fieldhouse at Johnson High, plus an addition to its band room, Schofield said.
There is also a need for more secure sources of funding. Schofield and school board members have urged state lawmakers from Hall County, and the general public, to consider the impact tax exemptions are having on the school system’s budget.
The number of property tax exemptions for certain qualified residents, and the corresponding loss of revenue for local school districts, continues to grow year after year.
In Hall County, the percentage of tax exemptions as a share of the gross tax digest — or all taxable properties in the county school district — grew to 20.72 percent for the current 2019 fiscal year from 19.7 percent in the 2014 fiscal year.But that figure was around just 9 percent in 2000.
There are exemptions available, such as for disabled veterans, surviving spouses of firefighters, and for agriculture and conservation.
Senior citizens, however, account for the largest share of residents exempt from school taxes.
It’s an issue Schofield said requires good-faith dialogue.
Of course, improving school security is always on the docket. But doing so took on increased urgency in the last year following a deadly shooting at a high school in Florida in February 2018.
Hall County will receive about $1.1 million in added funding from the state’s mid-year budget adjustment made in February to support security upgrades.
Adding security cameras at all elementary schools is high on the priority list, Schofield said, as is expanding quick-alert systems, which have been installed at Johnson High and the cluster of schools located around it.
The mid-year budget adjustment also includes $8 million for mental health resources in high schools as more and more districts look to provide support services for students and their families.
“It’s another one of those issues that whatever is provided is appreciated, but it’ll never be enough,” Schofield said.