The Bartlett Superintendent of Education, Dr. David Stephens, explained in an interview last week the care that the district took in evaluating the high school’s condition and the district’s future needs before recommending a major renovation.
The project will allow Bartlett High to seat 2,250 students in grades 10-12 and add a host of improvements at a cost of $55 to $60 million.
“It’s one of those things that’s overdue,” Stephens said. “We knew this was something that was going to have to be addressed.
When he first took the helm at Bartlett City Schools, a high school employee came to him and said, “Dr. Stephens, I’m just going to tell you — facility-wise — we are so far behind.”
That became apparent over the past two years of closely examining the high school’s buildings and scoring their condition. He listed a few needs:
- While it holds lump-in-the-throat emotional appeal for many, the 1917 auditorium in particular drew scrutiny with its scant space for dressing rooms and antiquated storage space in the form of catacombs underneath.
- In the gym, there’s a room where someone walking in can only take about 10 steps before facing dirt. The rest of the room is filled with dirt. And it has to remain because it’s part of the structural engineering for the building.
- Concessions at the gym are upstairs and not handicapped friendly. A student with a broken leg or those who use wheelchairs can’t go get food themselves. The lobby is too narrow to set up a satellite concessions stand without impeding foot traffic.
- The cafeteria is small, and the school must run many lunch periods to serve all the students.
- So many buildings are not connected, and students must walk outside in all types of weather to go to a different building. It’s also a security issue.
- The project’s website, builtforbartlett.com, notes that doing nothing is not an option. Portable classrooms are expected to be needed by 2019 (a minimum of 12 portables estimated to cost $500,000 annually), and deferred maintenance costs already exceed $70 million.
The decision was clear: Renovation is really needed.
It wasn’t by anyone’s design that Bartlett High School’s upkeep needs were put aside, Stephens said. He said that while the schools were part of the Shelby County Schools district, growth kept going east, and the district kept building new schools to meet that demand instead of investing as much as needed on existing facilities in Bartlett.
The big picture
An initial goal was to fit the Ninth Grade Academy onto the current campus as part of the renovation project. But that required purchasing more property, and the school district wasn’t able to strike a deal with the adjacent Bethel Church at this time. They even considered building a parking garage at the high school to economize on campus space, but the cost was prohibitive. The best path seemed to be focusing on improving the current high school campus for grades 10-12.
“We turned every rock over and looked at it,” Stephens said. “Because we didn’t want to go out to the public with a bunch of pie in the sky. We had to get the folks to say, ‘What can you do?’ So we think that out of all the options, this is the best one.”
Jason Sykes, the district’s communications, volunteer and outreach coordinator, said, “You’ve got excellence in the classroom, you’ve got great academics, and we could go on all day about that. You’ve got a lot of success and momentum in the athletics and arts and things like that, and so it’s time to have buildings and facilities that reflect that pride and that excellence.”
“We wanted to make sure our financial foundation was strong before we did any of this,” Stephens said. “Because we have a great partnership with the city, and we want to be great stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars.”
Over the past three years, the school district has built up its fund balance and been extremely frugal, he said. Everyone has made sacrifices to ensure the district got up and running smoothly.
“But we’re at the point now where we know we can continue to operate these schools,” Stephens said. “We can make it.”
Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald is proposing a $0.35 property tax increase to provide additional funding to fire, police and schools, with $0.14 of that amount designated for the high school renovation.
Project funding includes a possible contribution of up to $8 million from the city’s reserves and bond/debt proceeds estimated to generate approximately $44 million. The school district will contribute $6-$10 million for furniture, fixtures and equipment.
The total annual amount to service the 20-year debt is about $3.5 million, with $1 million coming from the school district’s operating budget, $1 million in local option sales tax revenues and $1.5 million from the proposed $0.14 property tax increase.
Stephens estimated the 14-cent property tax increase would cost the average family about the same as a meal out each month.
He said, “Nobody likes a tax increase, but they’re going to know where these dollars are going.”
The 2017-18 BCS budget should come before the Bartlett mayor and Board of Alderman this month for discussion and approval, he said.
In addition to having discussions with the public at the upcoming April 20 town meeting at Bartlett High School, Stephens said next steps for the project include official action from the school board to move forward, funding passed by the city, formal agreements with architectural engineering and construction management and then the drawing of plans. He hopes to see the school district break ground on renovations in the spring or summer of 2018.
The project is estimated at four years to complete, but Stephens said he hopes that the majority of the work is completed in three years.
To follow the renovation project, see the special website at builtforbartlett.com, like the Facebook page for “Built for Bartlett” and follow “@Built4Bartlett” on Twitter.