District gets A for maintenance, but needs new buildings

Published 12:01 am Thursday, December 20, 2007

NATCHEZ — On average, school buildings in the Natchez-Adams School District are half a century old.

The newest of the six schools housing grades kindergarten through 12th grade is Frazier Primary, which is 43 years old. The oldest is McLaurin Elementary, which is 54 years old.

The buildings have been patched, partially rewired, painted and re-roofed several times over in some cases.

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And the district’s efforts in making old buildings work is something of which they are proud. In fact, building maintenance was praised in the report issued by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools recent accreditation report.

But the buildings aren’t getting any younger, and good maintenance can only go so far.

Administrators know that soon the challenge has to move from maintaining old buildings to funding new ones, but they don’t have a plan they think will work just yet.

Building a new school would take a bond issue, Superintendent Anthony Morris said. And that means higher taxes.

“Before we start considering any buildings, you have to investigate the community environment,” Morris said. “The first thing that’s going to be said is, ‘That’s going to raise my taxes and I don’t want taxes raised.’”

Morris said he feels certain the community would not embrace a bond issue right now, despite the need.

“A bond issue is somewhere out in the future,” he said. “For now, we need to study community perception of the idea.”

The need

Kathy Graning teaches one of nine classes at Frazier Primary that meets in a hardly glorified trailer.

And though the mobile units serve their purpose for most teachers, it is what Graning teaches that makes her situation a sticky one.

The children call her Coach Graning and her mobile unit is the PE classroom.

At times up to 50 students pack into the mobile unit, which is shared by the other PE teacher Hope Hubbard.

They mostly just do walking exercises in the mobile unit, since skipping and jumping tend to make the whole classroom move a bit.

“We make it work,” Graning said. “There are some things that are harder to play than others. My main problem is that second graders are a bit bigger, so we have to find something where they don’t have to move around.”

Graning tries to take the students outdoors as much as possible, but her dream would be to have a small multipurpose room added on to the school. It doesn’t have to be a full-size gym for primary students, she said, but something with a rubber floor and room to run.

Frazier is full. The school is the most overcrowded in the district, and the available building space has affected class sizes. Morris said he would like to reduce class sizes, but cannot because more rooms to add teachers and open new classes are not available.

The dream plan

If the money was there, Natchez High School would be the first building to see major change, Morris said.

The current facility is a difficult physical plant to manage, he said, and he’d like to start from scratch.

The high school is composed of many pods of classrooms that all open to the outside. It doesn’t have hallways or any central space. Corners at every turn make it difficult to secure, since administrators cannot see what may be around the bend.

Natchez High is one of the newer district buildings, at 46 years old, but it doesn’t work as a modern-day high school, Morris said.

But NHS and the others will keep doing the job, at least in the short term, administrators said.

“Even though they are old, we’ve maintained them pretty well,” Director of Operations Wayne Barnett said. “We can get some more years out of them.”

Barnett and his staff work to visit schools and survey potential problems before they become disasters. Principals are responsible for notifying him of maintenance issues, and for the most part, the system works, he said.

“A school is just like a house,” he said. “At home if you never spend any money on your home, it’ll get rundown. You have to constantly be doing little things along the way.

“If you postpone maintenance because you don’t have money it all catches up to you at one time.”

Sooner or later

But the district needs a plan for the future, Barnett said.

“Sooner or later we are going to have to bite the bullet and build a new school, he said.

“When you compare our facilities, there are other towns that have old schools like we do, but some that have new ones that make you envious.”

The challenge for the district is both new and old. The old buildings must be maintained, but in the future, new construction must come, Barnett said.

“You can’t go on forever. For the near future what we have is going to work,” he said.

“But I’d like to see the community say it’s time, we need to start making the plans for a new school. We need to make that decision now.”

Planning a school takes four or five years at least, Barnett said. If the community doesn’t start talking now, it may be another decade before any construction work begins.

“Our kids deserve a new school,” Barnett said.