Maryville City Manager Greg McClain stressed Thursday that the proposal to close Fort Craig School of Dynamic Learning, “is not a done deal.”
The option to close the school was one of the alternatives presented Thursday by city school officials to the Maryville City Council during a joint work session with the Maryville City School Board.
The combined work session was for the school system to explain the proposal for dealing with overcrowding at Maryville High School by reconfiguring the grades. The ninth grade would be moved to the middle school with the eighth grade. Maryville Intermediate and the new Coulter Grove Intermediate schools would have either fourth through seventh grades or one would have fourth and fifth and the other sixth and seventh. The elementary schools would all have Kindergarten through third grades.
Schools director Stephanie Thompson said closing Fort Craig to help deal with funding issues wasn’t an official proposal but was part of a presentation of options the school system is looking at to open Coulter Grove and deal with overcrowding at Maryville High School.
“We don’t know if this is going to happen. This is information we presented to the city council. The school board will have to vote on the configuration in December, and sometime in January or February, city council will decide what level of funding they’ll be able to come up with to open the new school. At that point it will determine what we do,” she said. “It is a funding issue – we have to open our new school because it has a 900-student capacity, and in order to meet the needs of the elementary and high school, it is imperative to get Coulter Grove open.”
The new grade configuration is also central to the plan. “In order to do those grade configuration changes, we have to have Coulter Grove operational,” Thompson said. “Today we presented all information about the facilities master plan, what we have accomplished and the projections for the next 20 years.”
Thompson said the information they shared was what it would cost to open Coulter Grove as a fourth through seventh grade school. Opening Coulter Grove with no other changes would cost $1.8 million, according to McClain. Thompson said the system personnel looked for options if that money wasn’t going to be available.
“If we did not have funding to open Coulter Grove, we could close Fort Craig for a few years until our elementary enrollment picked back up and started filling other schools,” Thompson said. “That would be a temporary fix depending on what our elementary enrollment would be. Right now we’re basing it on kindergarten projections and on history. We would have to have additional elementary space by 2018.”
McClain said the school board has not made a decision yet regarding closing Fort Craig. “There is more discussion to take place,” he said. “I don’t want folks to think I’ve adopted the notion that that is the only option. It may not happen.”
McClain said that when the school board and city council were discussing the federal Recovery Act loan to build Coulter Grove School a year ago, they knew it was a step of faith. “They were still going to have opening the school as an issue, because we had not raised taxes needed to open the school,” he said. “We had taxes raised to cover the capital, but we knew a tax increase would be needed to fund the operational piece. The city council told the school board the economy may not be better , and it may be difficult to raise taxes. That’s why the school board has been looking at every alternative to opening Coulter Grove with a minimal tax impact.”
McClain said it is the wrong time to put more tax burdens on citizens or the business community. “Two things have collided: The need to not raise taxes and the need to open the school have come together,” he said. “City council has been very clear that before we raise taxes to open the school, the school board needs to look at every possible option for opening that school without a tax increase.
“Pulling fourth grade out of the elementary schools and into the intermediate schools, pulling ninth out of the high school and putting it with sixth and seventh grades in the middle is an option that actually allows you to close one school, in this case Fort Craig, and it work. You have space for everyone for at least the next two or three years, and you would have space in every grade,” McClain said.
McClain said the school board and city council are both trying to work toward not putting any more of a tax burden on residents and businesses, on getting Coulter Grove open and on relieving over-crowding in the high school. “The City Council would support (the school board) getting Coulter Grove open, but at the same time, they want to make sure the impact to citizens and business community is minuscule,” he said. “The difference between closing Fort Craig and not closing Fort Craig is about an additional $1 million.”
Even with closing Fort Craig, the school system is proposing an increase on property taxes. McClain said the school system presented city council and the school board with estimates on how much property taxes might have to be raised to cover opening the new school. “If you close Fort Craig, they are saying it would take $800,000 or 11 cents on the tax rate. If you leave Fort Craig open and open Coulter Grove, it would be $1.8 million or 24 cents on the tax rate. The tax rate now is 2.17 per $100 of assessed value.”
McClain said 1 cent on the tax rate equals about $77,000.
McClain said that Fort Craig is a very popular school. “I think if you remove the fact that it is a popular program, and you look at it at face value, if you can configure the grades, and, at the end of the day, minimize the tax rate impact, shouldn’t we do it? Isn’t that the responsible thing to do?” he said.
“The fact Fort Craig winds up being impacted is tragic, but desperate times call for desperate measures.”
The city manager said it is the school board’s responsibility to look at every option. “They’ve done that, and in these tough times, hard decisions are going to be made, and people are going to be affected,” he said. “We should be thankful that they are taking so much time and effort to minimize its effect for the overall good.”
The school board will vote at their Dec. 13 meeting regarding reconfiguring the grades. Then, in either January or February, the city council will vote on how to fund the Coulter School opening and the reconfiguration.