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New high school talks lead chamber event

Xavier Smith • Aug 11, 2017 at 1:33 PM

Talks surrounding the potential new high school in Mt. Juliet dominated the Mt. Juliet Chamber of Commerce’s monthly economic development meeting Friday at the chamber office.

Wilson County Schools leaders, county commissioners and leaders and residents gathered at the chamber to discuss and gather information about the status and possibility of a new high school in the fastest-growing portion of the county, Mt. Juliet.

Last month, the Wilson County Budget Committee took no action on the district’s needs assessment list, which included a new high school in Mt. Juliet on property adjacent to W.A. Wright Elementary School, estimated at $110 million.

Wilson County finance director Aaron Maynard said it would cost 12-18 cents on the tax rate to fund a new high school in Mt. Juliet, dependent upon how the debt payment is structured.

Maynard implied following last year’s tax increase, the county would be strapped for funds for future school construction projects until 2025, based on projections, noting any project would likely require a tax increase. 

 

“These schools are growing 100-200 (students) a year”

 

Wilson County Schools director Donna Wright and deputy director Mickey Hall led discussion on the new high school and its necessity in Wilson County.

Hall said as of Aug. 10, Mt. Juliet High School had 2,206 students, followed by Wilson Central with 1,949, Lebanon with 1,936 and Watertown with 548. Hall also noted that since the 2007-2008 school year, Watertown led the county’s high schools in percentage enrollment growth, followed by Mt. Juliet, Lebanon and Wilson Central.

Hall said the district had the funds to begin the process of building the new school immediately, the high schools would see a significant increase before the doors would open in 2020.

Commissioners Joy Bishop, Cindy Brown, Frank Bush, Bobby Franklin, John Gentry, Jerry McFarland, Dan Walker and Diane Weathers submitted a joint letter of concern last month regarding the school system’s needs lists.

The commissioners said in the letter “they understand there is an increase in student population each year, but that population is growing overwhelmingly in our county’s southwest (Providence) area.”

Hall noted Friday that contrary to popular belief, the influx of residents to the Providence area of Wilson County has not impacted Mt. Juliet High School’s enrollment numbers, since those students are zoned for Wilson Central.

Hall said the new high school would allow students in the western portion of the county who live north of I-40 to attend high school on that side of the interstate and vice versa.

“These schools are growing 100-200 (students) a year. You can tell Mt. Juliet is 2,200 today. It will be 2,500-2,600 and that is way out of portion. It’s only built for 2,000. You’re getting to a point where there’s a diminish in return,” said Hall, who said overcrowding effects all aspects of a school from parking to academics.

“When you have that many kids, you have to concentrate on their core requirements to graduate first. So, some of the electives start going away,” he said.

Wright said the district also feels the impact of people who circumvent the district’s residence policies.

“We have people that are researching. They do their homework before they get here. It’s a huge compliment, but it’s hard to manage,” she said. “We have people that are using lease agreements that live in surrounding districts so they can get here. It takes a lot of our time and resources to track that down. Not that we’re trying to be ugly, but we’re obligated to Wilson County first.”

Wright said even when the district proves a violation in residence policy some cases still end up in court.

Hall said if the doors to the new high school opened tomorrow, it would have 1,507 students – all from the county’s northwest corner population. He said based on current population and rezoning for the school, Mt. Juliet’s enrollment would drop to 1,363 students, while enrollment would fall to 1,253 at Wilson Central, 1,762 at Lebanon and 743 at Watertown.

 

$110 million is an estimate

 

Hall said the heartburn over the estimated $110 million price tag for the new school is premature, but the district’s best estimate.

“This is just like when we built Wilson Central. Everything is brand new. If you look at a band on Friday night, you’re looking to see if they look good and sound good. You probably don’t realize you’re looking at about $300,000 on a field just for a band,” said Hall, who said other aspects include furniture, fixtures, necessary equipment, special space for electives and more.

“The key to understand is it’s an estimate. I don’t know what it is until someone puts the number in a bid document and signs, notarizes it and says, ‘this is what we’ll build your school for.’ We can’t go to a contractor and tell them to give us per penny what it’ll be. We have to have an estimate – and educated guess on our part and our design group,’” Hall said.

Hall said the district estimates $200 per square feet in pure construction costs for the 395,000-square-foot high school based on the construction market. He said an additional 40 percent of that cost would go toward design fees, inspection fees, infrastructure and other expenses to equip the school.

 

District works with design team on all sites

 

The district’s design team includes representatives from Civil Site Design Group and Kaatz Binkley Jones and Morris (KBJM) Architects, who examine the pros and cons of all potential high school sites.

Last year, the Wilson County school board voted 3-2, for the N. Green Hills site in Mt. Juliet for the new county high school. Board member Wayne McNeese and former member Don Weathers voted against the site.

The site scored an 84 out a possible 100 on a KBJM site study, 16 points higher than the next highest ranked site on Benders Ferry Road. Mt. Juliet City Commissioner Ray Justice spoke last year about the site, which falls in his district.

"A total of 1,436 homes that are probably going to come online in the next 12-18 months," Justice said. "The N. Green Hills site already has a five-lane road that goes to it. It's already set up for W.A. Wright traffic. What I didn't hear, and I want to point out, is with traffic conditions that we've got, if you take those people in the northwest quadrant of the county and take them to a new school on N. Green Hill Road, you've cut their travel time down considerably and the bus traffic time down considerably."

Other potential sites included 64 acres on Benders Ferry; 65 acres at W. Division Street near Devonshire Drive; 90 acres on S. Mt. Juliet Road; 284 acres on Double Log Cabin Road; and 78 acres at State Route 109 and Highway 70.

 

“It was the bargain of the century for this county.”

 

“Adding the $5,850,000 purchase price, the $115 million estimated final cost of this new high school will exceed the combined costs of the new Mt. Juliet and Lebanon High Schools, both of which were built in the last 10 years,” the commissioners’ letter also read. 

Hall said comparisons to the cost of Lebanon High School, contracted in 2010 for less than $50 million, were irrelevant, pointing to the country’s recession during that time.

“What happened from 2008-2011? You cannot take that pricing structure, because it was the bargain of the century for this county. It was bid out at the correct time because people were hungry. You will never see that pricing again,” he said.

 

The Wilson County Commission and taxes

 

The Wilson County Commission approved a property tax increase last year of 35.17 cents more than the state certified rate. The approved increases included: Wilson County employee pay adjustments (15 cents); Wilson County Emergency Management Agency (2.07 cents); county convenient centers (1 cent); Wilson County Schools teacher raises (8.1 cents) and Mt. Juliet area middle school (9 cents).

Wilson County Mayor Randall Hutto said the situation was more complicated than simply raising property taxes because several residents in the county do not have an impact on the school system.

Hutto also noted the commission’s commitment to funding education projects, which, since he took office, has included: construction of Lebanon and Watertown high schools and Springdale Elementary School; renovations/additions at West, Rutland, Tuckers Crossroads, Gladeville, Southside and Watertown elementary schools, West Wilson Middle School, Mt. Juliet Public Library, old Lebanon High School into a central office; land purchase for a new elementary, middle and high school in Mt. Juliet and a recent groundbreaking of a Gladeville middle school.

Maynard implied following last year’s tax increase, the county would be strapped for funds for future school construction projects until 2025, based on projections, noting any project would likely require a tax increase. 

 “It’s a balance between the pressure on you and supply the needs we have. That’s a tough call and those [commissioners] back there have it. I don’t vote. The budget committee did not attach it. Any of the county commissioners could speak up on the 21st and say, ‘Hey. I want to vote for a 12-cent tax increase.” “If they all vote for it, it could still happen. The pressure to do that on the back of 35 cents (last year) is tough. The need is there. No question.”

The Wilson County Commission will discuss the county’s budget, which includes the Wilson County Schools budget, and potentially the new high school funding, Aug. 21 at the Wilson County Courthouse. A public hearing on the budget will be held at 6 p.m. prior to the 7 p.m. regular meeting.

 

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