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Board wants land to build 5 new schools, cost of $270 million

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Wilson County Director of Schools Dr. Donna Wright smiles at the end of Thursday's school board meeting after the board approved her recommendation to submit a capital outlay plan for new school construction to the Wilson County Commission. JOHN BUTWELL

Wilson County Schools are set to grow. The Wilson County School Board spent about two hours in a work session Thursday evening viewing details of a nearly $270 million five-year construction and equipment plan which would build and furnish five new schools, and expand or renovate five others.

Then in the rescheduled regular April meeting which followed the work session, the board voted unanimously to issue RFPs, or requests for proposals, to acquire four parcels of land to build on.

Following the 5-0 RFP approval, the board passed a resolution by a split 3-2 vote to have Director of Schools Dr. Donna Wright present their preliminary capital outlay plan to the Wilson County Commission to see what the commission can provide in the way of financing, with Board Chairman and Zone 5 Member Larry Tomlinson and Zone 3 Member Don Weathers voting no.

First new school start by summer?

KBJM Architects presented the plans to the board, which would start with the land search immediately. The school system would seek about 35 acres in the Mt. Juliet area to start construction of an additional Mt. Juliet elementary school, with construction to start this summer if possible.

Other property sought would include about 45 acres in the Providence/Gladeville area to build a middle school, about 65 acres for a new high school somewhere in the west side of the county, and a new middle and elementary school to be located near Mt. Juliet High.

The plan also calls for an addition to Tuckers Crossroads Elementary to expand its middle school area; renovation of the Mt. Juliet Middle School restrooms and theater, and renovation of the old Lebanon High School to turn it into board offices, all in the first year.

The second year - in addition to starting work on the Providence Middle School - Gladeville, Southside and Watertown elementaries would all get additions.

The third year, a fifth county high school would start being constructed, and the plan calls for construction of that building to be complete during the fourth year. In year five, a new elementary and middle school would break ground.

'Defer until May meeting'

However, Weathers wanted to defer the decision to send the plan to the county commission until the school board's May meeting. Weathers made a motion to that effect, but it died for lack of a second.

Weathers, Tomlinson and Zone 1 Member Wayne McNeese each said there are changes in the order of things or potential locations for schools they would like to study before sending the plan to the county. But McNeese ended up voting for sending it right away while Tomlinson joined Weathers in voting against sending it before the board's May meeting.

Weathers said he would like to see the plan set a priority of building more classrooms first and then renovate buildings later.

"We need to focus on classrooms," he said. "We need to keep us in classrooms, keep kids in classrooms and learning."

Zone 4 Board Member Linda Armistead agreed with at least part of Weathers' concerns. "Let's look at just doing the Tuckers Crossroads loop road and moving the additions to Gladeville and Watertown," she suggested.

Both Weathers and McNeese also questioned the proposal to build a new high school in the northwest corner of the county. "I can't vote for a high school in the northwest when the growth is clearly in the southwest," Weathers said.

"If we build on the north end of Highway 109 (in the north-central section of the county), it could pull from Lebanon, Central and Mt. Juliet," McNeese added. "Right now we need to put out RFPs and find land, then we can talk about where."

'More than one high school needed'

All five board members expressed concerns about whether one more high school would be enough to deal with the growth expected in the next five to seven years.

Tomlinson said that with the county's anticipated growth rate, he doesn't think the school system can last seven years, until 2022, with only one more high school. "We're going to need at least two," he said.

"We need the first one in three or four years and another by seven years," Armistead agreed.

"It's going to take two," McNeese said. "The question is where we build. We have to hurry, but we also have to do it right."

"One won't be enough," Weathers also agreed. "We need one south of I-40, and one on North 109."

"We'll have to keep a building program going," Zone 2 Board Member Bill Robinson said. "We have no other option. The children are coming, and we have to meet their needs."

District 20 County Commissioner Annette Stafford, who chairs the commission's Education Committee, said she thinks one new high school might be enough, but both a high school and middle school are needed urgently.

'Mega high schools' an option

Dr. Wright also said she thinks the school system could manage with only one new school, "but we may have to have 'mega high schools,' with 2,500 students each."

Robinson, a retired schoolteacher, said he believes smaller schools would be better. "Research shows lower teacher-to-student ratios are more effective," he said. "And smaller student populations are what allow that."

In its capital outlay plan, the school system will be requesting a first-year total of $41.75 million for construction and $8.2 million for furniture and equipment. Second-year totals will be $47 million for construction costs and $11.4 million for furniture and equipment.

The third and fourth years' combined costs would be $65 million for construction and $13 million for furniture and equipment. The fifth-year total would be $70 million for construction and $14 million for furniture and equipment. Of course, all these figures are estimates - actual costs would depend on the current prices for materials and labor at the time of construction.

All together, the plan calls for $223.75 million for construction and $46.6 million for furniture and equipment, or a total of $270.35 million over the five-year period.

No land purchase budget was prepared, because that cost will be determined during the land search process.

Writer Connie Esh can be contacted at cewrites@yahoo.com.

Editor's Note: This story was edited at 307 pm, April 20, to reflect the corrected votes.

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#WCEducation, Dr. Donna Wright, education, Lebanon, Mt. Juliet, new schools, taxes, Watertown, Wilson County, Wilson County Schools
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