COVINGTON -- The Newton County Board of Education is planning to discuss the future of the former Newton High School building on Ram Drive.
During a discussion of technology needed for a new program that is planned to be located in the ninth-grade wing of the old Newton High School on Ram Drive, some school board members expressed concerns about the future of the building.
"No decision to my knowledge has been made as to what to do with the old Newton County high school," said school board member Eddie Johnson. "Now we are putting a program in it and superseding a decision that has not been made."
The ninth-grade wing is connected to Porter Memorial Auditorium and is newer than the rest of the school building; it is connected to the rest of the building by an open breezeway and attached at the front, according to Gary Shattuck, director of Technology for the Newton County School System.
"It would be easy to tear down the rest of the building and leave that part intact," Shattuck said.
Then-Superintendent Gary Mathews said the system has funding in its budget to raze the entire school building, if the board so wishes. He added that the curriculum and instruction department wishes to provide a STEM program to students, and the most natural and logical place to put it is adjacent to the Newton College and Career Academy in the wing.
"This is part of a bigger picture," Mathews said. "In the state of Georgia ... this is one of the major initiatives of the governor and the Georgia Department of Education, so we're ahead of the game in that we want to be one of the first to provide a STEM program."
Mathews, who retired at the end of June, said he recommends that the board leave the ninth-grade corridor for the STEM program, thus leaving the auditorium for the Newton County Arts Association to continue to use, and make a decision on whether to keep the gym and the rest of the building.
"We believe that though it is old, our community needs this performance space that was built for use by the Arts Association ... as well as the school system," said Buncie Lanners, the Arts Association's executive director. "This partnership goes back to the actual building of the facility and the evolution of our organization, which began as the Fine Arts Advisory Committee of the Newton County School System. Just like we have shared the facility with Newton High all of these years and hosted our large performances there -- most of which benefit the school system by providing in-school residency performances for an entire grade or educational genre as well as augmenting the arts education of the students who participate in our Young Artists programs -- so too, in the future, do we see this partnership with the Newton County Schools and the Newton County College and Career Academy to benefit our community, its schools and its students."
She added that the auditorium allows Newton County students to experience the arts, since students are no longer bused to arts venues in Atlanta for field trips. This past school year, students watched performances of "The Nutcracker" and "Snow White" ballets by the Covington Regional Ballet, "Les Miserables" by the Oxford Youth Singers and "School House Rock Live, Jr." by the Oxford Singing Children at the auditorium.
"We need some fundamental planning as to what the total structure will look like," Johnson said Tuesday during the meeting. "I'm for the STEM program ... but we have not done the proper planning."
School board Chair Abigail Coggin suggested that the item be placed on the July agenda, since it was not on the board's agenda for June.
"Sharp (Middle School) has been sitting empty for several years and there's not been a decision there," she added. "If we're going to start razing buildings and schools, we need to do it with all the schools that are sitting empty too. We can't just pick on Newton High, so to speak."
According to documents provided by Lanners, in February 1989, the Newton County Board of Education approved a proposal by the then-Community Concert Association that continued an agreement signed in November 1983 between the city of Covington and the school board with the Porter Concert Series.
The auditorium was built with funds from the Porter Foundation. The Porter Fund also paid for the concert grand piano used by the Arts Association, and the Arnold Fund paid for the building of the green room for artists and current seating in the auditorium, all considered gifts negotiated by the Arts Association for the school and the organization, Lanners said.
Shattuck added that the new deputy superintendent, Craig Lockhart, who was approved at the school board's June meeting, will be able to be part of the decision-making in July.
"There's been a lot of planning that has gone into the STEM initiative," Mathews added.
The STEM institute will focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It will be academically connected to the Newton College and Career Academy, according to a presentation made by school officials in January.
It will be open to a group of ninth-grade students who applied to the program earlier this year based on math and science scores in middle school. Afterward, they can attend classes at NCCA.
During the program, students will take rigorous math and science courses complemented by other courses. In the future, the program may partner with post-secondary schools like the Georgia Institute of Technology and Abraham Baldwin Agriculture College, among others.
The board is next scheduled to meet for a combined monthly work session and meeting at 7 p.m. July 16 in the board room at the Newton BOE building, which is located at 2109 Newton Drive N.E. in Covington.