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Why a new round of SPLOST might fund a new middle, high school in Gainesville
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A second middle school, a junior high school for eighth- and ninth-graders, and a second high school for the Gainesville City School System have been identified by parents and teachers as some of the biggest spending priorities if voters approve a new round of a one-penny sales tax in 2020.

These findings come from “listening sessions” school officials held in October, and aren’t all that surprising.

For example, with tens of millions of dollars spent in recent years rebuilding two elementary schools in the city, officials had previously acknowledged that any future special purpose local option sales tax revenue was likely to be directed toward managing growing student enrollment in the one middle and one high school in the district.

But officials wanted to get a jumpstart on identifying these priorities and understanding the true needs of students.

“When we scheduled these four meetings, the intent was to give parents and the community an opportunity” to provide input, Superintendent Jeremy Williams said. “It’s really about getting the voice of the community.”

Jeremy Williams --NEW
Gainesville City Schools incoming Superintendent Jeremy Williams

Williams said it’s also about forecasting the needs of the school system 10, 20 and 30 years out, which can be difficult but necessary.

“We’re talking about our children’s children possibly, and how it will impact them,” he added.

The current E-SPLOST, which was approved in 2015 with 74 percent of voter support, is projected to bring in $6 million to $7 million annually for Gainesville City Schools over the five-year life of the tax (until 2022). The first collections began last fall.

The school system has allocated this revenue to pay off construction of the Mundy Mill Academy and new Enota Multiple Intelligences Academy, among other things.

Gainesville City Schools received more than $29 million during the previous round of E-SPLOST that ended last year, which rebuilt the Fair Street School, and paid for re-roofing work at three schools and emergency systems upgrades.

Andy Stewart - photo by Scott Rogers

Board of Education member Andy Stewart, a 1991 graduate of GHS who has two children in the city’s school system, said he’s hearing from community and school stakeholders that a desire for a new middle school is priority No. 1.

Gainesville Middle currently has an enrollment of about 1,850 students.

But a new middle school presents a dilemma for Stewart and other Gainesville school officials. 

“I think, ultimately, down the road that would lead to a next high school,” Stewart said.

The “One Gainesville” concept, where students from six elementary schools funnel into one middle and one high school in the Red Elephant universe, is a point of pride and tradition for the community.

“I struggle with that,” Stewart said. 

And the prospect of adding another middle or high school (Gainesville High has a current enrollment of about 2,150 students) has many implications, some good and some potentially problematic.

For example, adding one of each could open more opportunities for students to participate in sports and school clubs that are currently limited in size.

Then again, it may mean that Gainesville has middle and high schools competing against one another.

Of course, that may just be an inevitability of time.

And, for Stewart, “It may be that I need to put my emotions aside for the kids.”

“Then what does that look like?” Williams asked when speaking with The Times. “Are we as a community comfortable with that?”

A junior high may be a compromise, but it may not be the best solution long term. All that remains to be decided.

Board member Sammy Smith said officials are a long way from “proposing a project list for the voters to consider,” but that he’s “very pleased that the consensus-building exercise is understood and in progress.”

The next phase in the multi-pronged approach is to engage focus groups with singular questions and try to pare down a potential project list by the fall of 2019, Smith added.

Williams said he anticipates organizing focus groups over the next six to nine months to discuss how adding new schools might work, what the costs would be and what it would mean for the larger Gainesville community.  

“That’s the next phase of all of this,” he added. “We don’t know the answers. That’s down the road.”