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Overcrowding a problem for elementary, officials say

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‘I guarantee you they would not put inmates in a building like this building ...’

By Leslie Moore

 

Taylor County Elementary School is operating at full capacity after welcoming a record 1,131 students on the first day of school last Tuesday. When pre-school begins on Aug. 19, enrollment at TCES will rise to 1,187 students.

"We are the largest elementary school in Kentucky," TCES Principal Donna Williams said. "We're not exactly proud of that."

Superintendent Roger Cook said TCES is facing a dilemma as it struggles to find space to accommodate 87 students more than last year.

As a temporary solution, Cook said, the school's site-based decision making council voted to allow TCES classes to go over the maximum capacity of 24 set by the state. But according to Cook, class sizes of 28, 29 and even 30 students is unfair to teachers and students.

"There are no good options for this year," Cook said. "I had to move things around and we've moved around now all we can possibly move around. We're out of space."

To reduce class sizes to meet state standards, Cook said TCES needs four more classrooms, and to get them, the district is considering bringing in mobile homes, dividing the library and leasing a building. He said it is also a possibility that the 160 students who live outside of the Taylor County district will be sent back to their home districts.

Cook said any of these solutions would create additional problems. Using mobile homes as classrooms would raise safety concerns and Cook said it simply wouldn't look good.

Cook said leasing a building and having to renovate it to meet code regulations for a school would be very expensive. He said supplying food and transporting the students to and from the building would also be problematic.

"The library is the largest room we have down there, so when I'm looking for space that's got to cover over it, I went in and said, 'You know, we may need to make this into four pods and put four classrooms in here and take the books and store them in a closet,'" Cook said.

Williams said preventing the cafeteria and hallways from becoming overcrowded forces the school to run on a rigid schedule.

"Because of our space and our size, we start lunch at 10:25 a.m. and our last group is finished at 1 p.m., and that's two classes going every five minutes," Williams said. "I mean it's orchestrated, it literally has to be."

Williams said she appreciates TCES teachers, custodians and maintenance staff for making the best out of the situation, but the condition of the building often hinders their efforts.

When it rains, water frequently comes in the basement. Over the summer, a teacher's bookshelves and books were ruined because of water damage and carpet in the reading recovery room had to be removed because it was soaked from rainwater.

And according to Williams, even with dehumidifiers all over the building, the added moisture has caused a mold issue.

"I know the vision is for us to have a primary school and an intermediate school, and I think that would just be great," Williams said. "We just have too many children in the same building, and their needs are very different."

Williams said when students go to the cafeteria, library, art room and gym, the furniture is one size fits all because it has to be.

"For those little ones, it's very hard," Williams said. "We do the best we can, but it's just not the best situation for us."

Williams said it is disappointing that Taylor County has a jail that is much nicer than its schools.

"And I guarantee you they would not put inmates in a building like this building. But they will put children in there," Williams said. "That to me is so sad.

"I'm not criticizing the jail and I'm not even arguing if we needed it or not," Williams said. "My argument is, why would you put your children in a building that you wouldn't put inmates in? Our teachers do the best with what they have, but our kids deserve better than this."

But in order for TCES to move to another location, Cook said a nickel tax must be levied in Taylor County.

"I don't want to raise a penny in taxes, but there's no other way to do it," he said.

Though Taylor County School Board members approved a nickel tax in 2010, a petition against the tax received enough signatures that a special election was called. The nickel tax was defeated by 132 votes.

According to Cook, there was confusion throughout the community about just how much the tax would cost the county's property owners. He said the tax would be five cents on every $100.

"What it actually costs on a $100,000 piece of property is $50 more a year on your taxes," Cook said. "The average assessed value of homes in this town, the last time I checked, is $62,000, which would be $30 more a year."

The district facilities plan calls for building a pre-school through second-grade building on the current middle and high school campus and a new high school on the district's KY 210 property. The middle and high school buildings would be remodeled, with the current TCMS building housing grades three through five and the current TCHS building housing the middle school. The current elementary school would no longer be used.

"There were issues in the past about why don't we build an elementary school instead of a high school. Well, OK, I'm all for that," Cook said. "If that's what it takes to get this through, then fine."

But because of state regulations that require special permission to build a school that holds more than 600 students, the District can't build just one elementary school. They would have to build two.

"So we'd have to build two 700-student elementaries, which would require two cafeterias, two kitchens and all the appliances to go to cook the food, two gymnasiums for the kids to have physical education as required by law," Cook said.

Cook said he has also been asked why the district wouldn't build all new schools on KY 210. He said he would love to do that, though it would cost the District $80 million.

"We don't have $80 million," Cook said. "If we raise this local effort and the state matches it 150 percent, which they will, they have done it 100 percent of the time, we will have around $40 million. That gives us enough money to build a new high school and a new primary center and that's it."

Although Cook said following the district's current facilities plan is the most cost effective plan for taxpayers, he is willing to build two elementary schools if that is what it takes to get the nickel tax passed.

"If it is an issue about what we're going to build, we'll build elementary schools," Cook said.

The Board could approve the nickel tax at its next meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 20. Cook said the nickel tax needs "yes" votes from three of the Board's five members. Although he is confident it will be approved, the tax will likely face the same hurdles it did in 2010.

According to Board member David Hall, a petition opposing the nickel tax could lead to a special called election, if it receives 815 signatures.

Cook said he hopes voters' attitudes toward the nickel tax will be different than they were in 2010, for the sake of the district's students.

"I'm not asking for anything that other counties don't have," Cook said. "Just drive around and look at all the new schools in other counties. Our kids deserve that, too."