Sunday focus: One Mississippi school district considers alternative to building new school

Published 12:41 am Sunday, May 14, 2017


NATCHEZ — When Holmes County leaders realized they could not afford $40 million for a new high school, they knew they had to look for another option.

A bond issue failed in August 2013 that was aimed at building a centralized high school for the school district.

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Four years later, the school district is once again looking to build a high school after Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law the consolidation of the Holmes County and Durant school districts. The districts must be consolidated by July 2018.

Instead of making another attempt at building a brand new school building, school officials considered an unlikely solution — a local mobile home manufacturing facility.

With the help of architects from the Jackson firm Duvall Decker, the school district identified a vacant factory as a possible option. The building would be used to house the consolidated school, a move officials hope cost taxpayers a fraction of the $40 million price tag proposed by another design firm.

Holmes County School District Superintendent Dr. Angel Meeks said plans for a consolidated high school are still in the exploration phase.

“After the first (referendum) did not pass, the community is now conducting a facility study to determine cost-effective solutions,” Meeks said. “We determined that one of the best uses of our resources would be to convert an existing building in the community.”

Currently, the Holmes County School District serves 750 to 775 students. After consolidation with the Durant school district, the high school population will increase to approximately 1,200 students.

The newest school buildings in the district were built between 1950 and 1960, Meeks said.

“Right now we are trying to provide a 21st–century education in buildings that are antiquated,” Meeks said. “We know we need a new high school.”

Meeks said the district looked at various options and determined the manufacturing facility had several advantages.

“The former factory is a relatively young building, already has a parking lot, slab, structure and plumbing,” Meeks said. “In the original $40 million design, a significant portion of the design went into groundwork — money that we could save with the existing building.”

The superintendent said the existing building helps the district focus more on how the building functions and works with the district’s needs.

Meeks said new designs typically spend a lot of money on the building’s aesthetic appeal, or how the building looks from the outside. Money saved by using the existing building can be used to focus what happens inside the building.

“We are going from the inside out, instead of the outside in,” Meeks said.

Using the abandoned factory, officials hope to considerably cut the cost of the new high school — from $40 million down to approximately $20 million, Meeks said.

Like the Holmes-County School District, the Natchez-Adams School District is also seeking to provide students with a new high school.  The issue will go to voters in a May 23 referendum that will seek up to $35 million for school building projects.

Current Natchez-Adams plans are to build a new 160,000-square-foot building on property adjacent to the existing high school. The cost of the facility is estimated to be $24 million.

The district also plans to transform the existing high school into a middle school — demolishing a significant portion of the campus and replacing it with new classroom buildings. Cost of the work is estimated to be $16 million.

Natchez-Adams Superintendent Fred Butcher said the district has not looked at using any existing school buildings for a new high school.

The site of the property adjacent to the high school, Butcher said, is an ideal location for the high school because of its size and location.

“The current site has the acreage that is recommended by the Mississippi Department of Education,” Butcher said. “The athletic stadium is also located near this site and therefore is more favorable to locate the high school there.”

Like Holmes County, Butcher said the school buildings in the school district are antiquated and require immediate attention.

“There have been no renovations to our school buildings in over 50 years,” Butcher said. “Consequently, we are now experiencing the impact.”

The last construction of a new building in the school district was in 1968 when the Fallin Career Technology Center and Natchez Freshman Academy were built, Butcher said. Since then the district has added a new library at Robert Lewis Magnet School and West Elementary and renovated the gyms at Natchez High and Morgantown Middle schools.

Butcher said because of the old buildings, the district has several significant concerns, ranging from safety and health concerns to increased costs associated with old electrical wiring and air-conditioning units.

“Our budget this year for maintenance was set at approximately $367,000. However, we have currently spent more than $450,000 because of major HVAC system failures that had to be addressed, “ Butcher said. “The aging condition of our buildings is increasing our operations costs.”

Butcher said if the May 23 school bond referendum fails, the district will do what it can to find additional savings for small renovations. The small renovations, however, will not address the real needs of the district.

“We need the community’s support to address the major issues, concerns and needs of the district,” Butcher said.