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School board to grapple with growth in 2015

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The two most important issues facing Wilson County Schools in 2015 are how to cope with growth and improve the availability of technology for students, according to administration and board members in New Year's interviews with The Wilson Post.

Both issues are scheduled to be addressed in special work sessions planned for January and February.

The real problem in both cases may come down to money to finance the needed schools and computers.

"'How do we get the money?' is the biggest question," said Zone 1 Board Member Wayne McNeese. "There are only two ways, cut expenses or raise taxes, but that's easier to say than to do."

'Quicker rather than later'
McNeese pointed out that currently, about 600 new one-family homes behind Mt. Juliet High School and another 500 in Providence have been approved by the City of Mt. Juliet. Those houses, he said, are going to be built in the next year.

He added that as a result, new school buildings are going to be needed "quicker rather than later."

Dr. Donna Wright, director of Wilson County Schools, agreed. It's even possible that some students may have to be transported to schools in other parts of the county until new schools can be built, she said.

"Even if we decide this semester, we still have to find property, buy it and build the schools," Wright said. "Until we can get schools on line, we may have to ship kids to schools with more room."

'4 schools have growth room'
Currently, the only schools in the county with enough growth room are Watertown, Tuckers Crossroads and Carroll-Oakland, Wright added. Lebanon High School also has some growth room for about 200 more students, she said, but it's the fastest-growing high school in the county.

MJHS and Wilson Central are both close to 2,000 students, according to Hall - and overcrowding also is a problem at the two middle schools on the county's west end, where Mt. Juliet Middle has 1,600 students enrolled.

West Wilson Middle isn't far behind, with about 1,200, Hall said.

In early November, 17,117 children were enrolled in Wilson County Schools, according to Wright, which was an increase from 16,700 in August.

'Up to 3,000 new students'
Furthermore, city and county planners have projected that the 400-pupil increase in less than three months was just the beginning.

In Mt. Juliet alone, 4,356 single-family homes have been approved but have not yet been built, and 1,862 more have been proposed, but not yet approved, according to City Planner Bo Logan.

When 897 already-approved apartments that allow children are added to that total, Logan said, the number of new residential units in Mt. Juliet alone could reach a staggering 7,115 over the next two or three years.

Doing the math, Logan added that Mt. Juliet neighborhoods where children are allowed average a little more than one child per household, so the 7,000 new homes probably will house 8,000 to 10,000 children. In 2015 alone, assuming the growth remains steady, the county could see 2,000 to 3,000 new students in the new year.

'New industries fuel growth'
However, the current estimated population of Mt. Juliet is close to the number that was previously predicted for the city's 2030 population in separate studies by the University of Tennessee and Woods and Poole Economics, Inc., County Planning Director Tom Brashear said.

In addition, the coming of Under Armour, FedEx, and Marriott to Mt. Juliet, among other new businesses, is pushing growth even harder, Wright believes. "We anticipated growth, but we're seeing greater numbers with these companies locating here," she said.

To respond to the growth, "our current plans call for a high school, a middle school and an elementary on North 109," Deputy Director of Schools Mickey Hall said. "That would help the three biggest high schools and the middle schools, too."

Zone 3 School Board Member Don Weathers also likes the plan to build along Highway 109, but he prefers first building a middle school and high school in the southwest corner of the county to deal with the booming growth in Mt. Juliet.

After that, the county should add the three-level campus on North 109, near Laguardo, said Weathers, who previously had favored building those schools first.

'Time to get started'
But the time to start is now, Weathers added. "It takes 12 to 36 months before you can start building," he said, echoing comments he made last fall. "You have to find the property, get the funding, the engineering and the plans first, and then you can have weather delays."

What's more, it's crucial to make sure the construction of new schools doesn't distract the school system from other important goals like improving students' access to technology, Weathers said.

"We have to stay on target to improve classroom standards at the same time," he noted. "We have to keep making progress. Technology is not the answer to everything, but it's a great tool. We need to put more in classrooms and in the hands of kids."

A 'wide variety of challenges'
Hall agreed that expanding buildings is only one of the challenges faced by Wilson County Schools. "We will have to expand staffing, too," he said. "And raising academic standards is a constant challenge."

Work sessions planned for early 2015 will discuss those issues as well. "We have several things to discuss," said Board Chair and Zone 5 Member Larry Tomlinson, "technology as well as growth. Watertown High School has laptop computers for all students, and Carroll-Oakland is next. All of our building projects include funds for furnishings and technology, which includes new computers."

Tomlinson also said technology is one of Director Wright's top priorities. In fact, she has scheduled a special technology retreat for Jan. 31. "We will be talking about the technology plan," she said.

Special 'tech' guest
As a special guest at the retreat, Wright has invited Dr. Scott Smith, director of technology for the Mooresville, South Carolina schools to speak at the event. Smith's school system has provided every student with a computer and as a consequence, its achievement scores have gone up, according to Wright.

Technology can also replace textbooks and paper tests, she said, which would be an economic boost for Wilson County Schools as well.

The traditional symbol for a New Year is a baby, and by the end of the year, he's an old man. Somehow that seems appropriate for the challenges faced in 2015 by Wilson County Schools, which are responsible for educating our county's youngest citizens - if their growth doesn't give the School Board too many gray hairs along the way.

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

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classrooms, crowding, school system, space, technology, Wilson county
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