By Jonathan Deal
It’s just a field right now, but what it could become is why it’s so important to the Athens City Schools system. The field, of course, is part of the 125 acres purchased by the school board in 2010.
Most recently, the school system completed the new Central Office building on the property. The $3 million, 17,000-square-foot central office complex consolidated several buildings that previously were used for administrative purposes.
The building is the first step in what could be a massive long-term renovation for the Athens City Schools system. Following the property’s acquisition two years ago, the school board discussed using the excess acreage at the site for a new high school. That plan is still in the works, but when it will happen?
“There is a capital plan for a high school to be built, but we just don’t have enough funds right now to build out there,” said Athens City Schools Superintendent Dr. Orman Bridges.
The school system agreed in September 2010 to pay the Beasley family of Athens $2.9 million for the 125-acres off U.S. 31, north of Jack’s restaurant. The new Central Office was paid for with proceeds from a $3.5 million bond sale issued in 2009 by the city for the schools. The debt will be repaid over time with tax revenue from the school systems General Fund.
“We still don’t have a timetable,” said Bridges. “We were looking back on that last year and decided that it might be five years out for the high school, but that’s a rough estimate. Before we do that, we are looking to pay down on some debt and we would have to come up with some kind of extra revenue stream.”
If and when a new high school is constructed, Bridges said, the Athens Middle School students could move into the current high school. It is unclear what would become of the current middle school.
Another advantage to building a new school at the site is its close proximity to the current high school. Students attending the new high school would still be able to utilize the current school’s athletic facilities.
“When we purchased that land a few years back we wanted to be prepared if we did build a new high school,” said school board member David McPherson. “It was a good location because we wouldn’t have to build new athletic facilities. Building a new stadium would be a tremendous amount of money. Building the school there would allow us to use the current facilities.”
The 125 acres also allows for plenty of room for a new high school and elementary school, should funding allow.
“We’ve talked about building an elementary school there, too,” said McPherson. “It could even be a seventh- through ninth-grade with some of the students staying at the high school. But all that’s down the road. Right now, it is still a funding issue.”
The newly constructed Central Office building sits along U.S. 31 across the street from the proposed high school site. Completed in July 2012, the building consolidated several far-flung offices previously serving as the school system’s central office.
Before the new building was constructed, the superintendent’s office was in the little red schoolhouse on East Washington Street and the rest of the administrative offices were located in two buildings at Athens Middle School on Clinton Street.
Having multiple offices was inconvenient for parents enrolling students and others. Also, the offices at the Middle School have seen better days — one of the buildings is made of corrugated metal. The school is the oldest in the city, dating back to the 1940s.
Which brings up the issue of how the middle school would be used if students were moved to the current high school.
“If there are people that would like to purchase it, we certainly would entertain that or if someone wants to use the athletic fields,” said Bridges. “Whatever happens, we wouldn’t want it to be an eyesore for the community.”