Whatley aims to clear air over schools

COVINGTON -- Officials at the Newton County School System hope to clear up any confusion among school staff and community members regarding its plans to phase out three schools this year.

During the weekly meeting of the Kiwanis Club of Covington on Thursday, Superintendent Steve Whatley answered questions from members and guests regarding recent financial woes at NCSS and the school system's plans for some of the county's historic schools.

Members wondered what will happen to Newton High School and Palmer Stone and Ficquett elementary schools and why the system decided to phase them out -- a term used by the state that Whatley said has caused some confusion.

"We will use them until we don't need them," he said.

Whatley compared the process to the relocation of the historic Cousins school on Geiger Street in the 1990s, when the school system then discovered it could get $1 million more in state funding for a new building than it could for renovating the 1950s building. The state will give NCSS more in state funding for the building of new schools than it will for the renovation of older schools, many of which date back to the 1950s and 1960s.

Whatley said the current Newton High School, which is expected to be replaced with a new high school by 2013, already has served for more than 30 years, more than the 20-odd years that Sharp was used as a middle and high school.

"We are looking to move forward so these facilities will be replaced over time and repurposed," he said about the three phased out schools. "It made good sense economically."

Sharp was repurposed as an alternative school and also rented by Mercer University for several years.

So far this school year, NCSS has received $13 million in cuts from the state, has had to enact six furlough days for its staff and is not collecting as much as expected in local tax revenues, Whatley said.

"Other state agencies have taken bigger hits," he said. "All state agencies have had severe cuts due to these economic times. ... We are in some tough, hard times that really do call for tough decisions."

This means changes to the appearance of schools, he said.

The system plans to continue building multi-level school buildings, like Liberty Middle School and South Salem Elementary School, and officials are looking at building schools that will fit their core facilities, many up to 1,500 and 2,000 students.

"We can't afford to have neighborhood, small schools everywhere," Whatley said.

He said the decisions school system officials and the Newton County Board of Education have made are helping the system to move forward. Plans also call for a new career academy with funding through a state grant.

"We try to keep our focus on student achievement and make certain the opportunities provided are appropriate for students and will be beneficial to them," he said.

Whatley plans to meet with school staff next week to clear up any more confusion and questions they have.

According to the NCSS Five-Year Facilities Plan time line, NCSS architects are working with the Georgia DOE's facilities consultant to develop cost estimates needed to substantiate facility needs in the school system. On March 9, the Newton County BOE plans to adopt a proposed organization plan for NCSS.

NCSS plans to submit its new five-year facilities plan to the state Department of Education for review by March 15, and the school board is expected to adopt the plan in May, after a committee made up of administrators from school districts around the state reviews it. In June, the new plan is expected to be complete and adopted by the Georgia DOE.