Lanier and Riverbend elementary schools provide a study in contrasts that highlight the maintenance and development needs that officials with Hall County Schools say must be made to ensure a quality 21st century education.
“This is the best of our old schools,” Superintendent Will Schofield said of Lanier during a tour of 10 of the school district’s 20 elementary schools on Monday, July 15, along with members of the board of education.
Lanier’s campus is located on 26.9 acres in North Hall. And while it has its own maintenance needs, such as no heating and air conditioning available along one hallway, as well as cramped spaces for a clinic, library and administrative offices, the school has had several major renovations and additions since its construction in the late 1950s – including following a tornado that touched down in the area in 1998.
Riverbend, on the other hand, is one of the most challenging schools to maintain, Schofield said, with a “host of issues” that will require ongoing remedies and long-term fixes.
The school occupies just 8.7 acres between Limestone Parkway and Cleveland Highway.
There have only been four major additions to the school in its 62 years, the last being the construction of a gymnasium in 1982.
Most of the district’s elementary schools are, on average, about 25-30 years old, officials said.
Riverbend has a capacity of just 400 students, and while all schools can handle a few additional students at this time, room is close to maxing out at many of the elementary schools.
Riverbend’s uniqueness is obvious, as school officials have worked to maintain its functionality through creative “Band-Aids” over the years.
For example, one interior hallway has walls made of two different materials (large, concrete blocks and small bricks) indicating that one side was once the exterior of the building.
The topography of the land is also unusual, and reflected in the sloping halls, stairways and even classroom space located beneath the gym.
Low ceilings and musty smells only serve to distract from the undersized classrooms, outdated bathrooms and plumbing fixtures, and too many entrances and exits that plague not just Riverbend, but also present security concerns at other local schools.
School security improvements, even at the elementary level, have become obvious needs with the growing frequency of mass shootings on campuses across the nation, but they were not primary concerns when these decades-old schools were constructed.
Nath Morris, board chair, wondered aloud during the tour about “how much longer can we do this?”
“A lot of these schools look just like the schools I walked through when I was 6 years old,” he added. “We’ve done a good job of keeping schools we’ve had for a long time in good learning environments.”
But in working toward developing a 10-year facilities plan to upgrade, renovate and develop new schools, Morris said it is critical that officials consider how to make schools more efficient and sustainable.
Board member Craig Herrington described the state of many of the schools as being in a precarious “balancing act” between whether it’s more cost-efficient to repair or altogether replace existing schools with the biggest renovation needs.
“There’s only so much you can upgrade,” he added. “You can’t make the hallways wider.”
Herrington added that more learning commons are needed, and schools also need to be equipped to handle new infrastructure, from plumbing to technology.
The fact the schools are still operable, safe and equipped – for the time being – is “testimony to how good our maintenance and staff has been,” Schofield said.
But board members concurred that time is running short to overhaul several schools.
“There are a lot of similar trends among the schools that we’ve visited,” board member Mark Pettitt said. “There’s a space struggle. And the layout of the schools has been piecemealed together over several decades, so it’s not very conducive to a modern learning environment.”
Pettitt also said that school officials need to consider how operational savings might be achieved by reducing how sporadically located some of the elementary schools are throughout the county.
For example, Riverbend essentially straddles the line between unincorporated Hall County and the city limits of Gainesville, which has its own school system.
“Geographically, many of the (school) sites don’t make sense any longer,” Pettitt said.
Board member Bill Thompson said the school district is providing students the best of what is currently available by funding continual maintenance improvements.
“But when you think about what they deserve, in my opinion, it’s not fair to those kids in schools that are 75 years old and we keep putting Band-Aids on them,” he added. “We can do better.”
Matt Cox, executive director of facilities and construction, said Hall County Schools currently has about $537 million worth of project and maintenance needs identified among its 37 schools.
Schofield said school officials intend to engage the public about these needs as they develop the long-term facilities plan over the coming months.
“We do look forward to formalizing that plan sooner than later,” he added.
According to school district spokesman Stan Lewis, “a future tour is also in the works that would include some (additional) elementary schools and several high schools.”