Story by Amy Guinn with Gator News
From time-zone considerations to funding, the consolidation of Chambers County Schools is a massive undertaking that has the potential to affect every citizen in the county. Recent school board meetings have offered updates, projections, and concerns for the community with the primary focus being on the construction of a new high school that will serve all students residing within Chambers County.
This week presented the opportunity for citizens to hear from Tracy Richter of HPM, the Construction Management Firm advising on the site selection. During the meeting, it was indicated that two locations are currently being considered, both included donated land, one by the city of Valley and the other by the city of LaFayette. There were other properties under consideration, however, data for those are limited at this time.
Determining the best site for the new building is the current focus of the school board, with many factors being taken into consideration. The cost of the projected site can affect the funding available for the actual building project and the future benefits available for students. The expenses being weighed include the cost of making the land ready for construction and the accessibility of water, utilities, sewage, internet services. In addition to site readiness, the potential to expand the site for future educational and athletic needs will factor into the final decision.
Plans for the new high school are based on an enrollment of 1,000 students with a final building size of 175,000-190,000 square feet. The cost per square foot ranges between $375 and $400, required by the high volume of daily traffic expected at the facility and the current inflation of construction costs.
A Geographical Information Systems Analysis began in May. Limited data is available until a site is decided and all efforts have been made to gain the data necessary to make an informed decision. The land donations by each city allowed student mileage and distance data to be collected and considered.
The Lafayette location is near the Board of Education offices on Highway 50 and is about 50 acres in size, with the possibility of an additional 110 acres in the surrounding areas for future expansion. The Valley site is just over 73 acres. Both are being evaluated for the buildable acreage available and land that would be allocated for athletic fields. The need for road improvements, environmental evaluations, and zoning regulations continue to be researched for both sites and the adjacent lands.
Student travel time and the distance to each site is a recognized concern for families. The cost of student transportation is a financial factor for the district as well. Approximately 35% of high school students utilize buses at a cost of $5 per mile with all factors considered. Limits can be set on travel time for students and the bus routes will be set accordingly. To ensure that students are comfortable and productive while traveling, the district is making sure that air conditioning and wi-fi are available on buses.
The school board is also working with the Department of Justice and the Legal Defense Fund to ensure that the project moves forward with legal compliance to the desegregation order as specified. A Desegregation Advisory Committee was selected from parents, guardians, and students from the communities of LaFayette and Valley attendees. The committee will meet September 20th for the first time to provide feedback on issues that the community is facing as it moves forward.
Another large concern is the fact that the county operates on two time zones. Casey Chambley, the Superintendent of Chambers County Schools, explained that the board can change the time-zone for the school system and, although no decision has been made at this time, he believes that it will be necessary to operate on Central Time. He recognized the difficulty for families on Eastern Time that may have children that won’t be on the buses by the time parents have to leave for work, however, for Northern county students, a 7:45am ET school start time would require that they be on the buses at 5:45am CT.
Both present a tough situation that could be minimized if major businesses and the cities agree to the time change time. Chambley states “If other entities went with us - if the hospital, major corporations, City of Valley, other groups went to Central Time it would make it much easier.” Additional options to be considered include a zero period or thirty-minute split.
Chambley also explained that the expedited timeline for the consolidation of the elementary schools and the move of LaFayette High School students to the Valley campus were essential to meeting the court requirements for the desegregation order.
In June, the process of High School Educational Specifications began, which defines the actual programs offered in the new space and contributions have come from all over the district. Considering that 42% of Chambers County students do not continue their education or join the military after graduation, the planned Career Tech Center is a large motivating factor that will provide students program access without the need to travel between campuses during the school day. The State of Alabama has only built three high schools in the last four years, so this is considered a great opportunity to improve the educational opportunities available for students.
Plans remain in place for the building construction to begin in the summer of 2023. As soon as the site is selected, the chosen architect will begin the design work. From November to May, there will be opportunities for community input and discussions regarding many different subjects, from the building design to the school mascot.
Citizens are encouraged to be active participants in future meetings and the option to ask questions and make comments online is available for a limited time.