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Former Wise County School Board chairman offers plan; build five new schools, renovate one

Stephen Igo • Mar 12, 2008 at 12:00 AM

APPALACHIA — Prior to Monday’s stalemate by the Wise County School Board, Appalachia’s Barry Nelson, a former board chairman, submitted a proposal to build five new high schools and provide improvements to the sixth — St. Paul.

A broken leg gave Nelson plenty of time to ponder the high school dilemma.

“I’ve had a lot of time to think, sitting around with a broken leg,” Nelson said Tuesday. His idea “is a generic way to do it, but it’s the only way to do it.”

Basing his proposal on projected 2011 student population figures, Nelson estimated costs of $7.46 million to build a new 40,800-square-foot Appalachia High School; $12.58 million for a new 68,000-square-foot Coeburn High School; $16.04 million for a new 86,700-square-foot J.J. Kelly High School; $7.86 million for a new 42,500-square-foot Pound High School; and $17.3 million for a new 93,500-square-foot Powell Valley High School.

Nelson includes $4.45 million for renovations to St. Paul High School, for a total baseline cost estimate of $185 per square foot in new construction costs at nearly $66 million.

With architectural and engineering fees, contingency cushion, site preparation and the like, Nelson said he figures a total cost of $86 million to build five new high schools and renovate the sixth.

Nelson based his calculations on the same square footage and cost per square foot used in the school division’s comparative study — introduced by the administration last month — to assess the options of renovating six schools, building six new ones, or closing all existing schools and building one, two or three brand-new high schools.

Nelson has always been against consolidation, but he prefers another perspective of his stance on the divisive issue.

“Let’s say I’m for community schools, and that’s why I came up with this option,” he said. “And there is a reduction in costs.”

In the comparative study, school division officials projected no annual savings by maintaining the current six-school setup and significant annual savings by consolidating into fewer modern facilities. The division’s study projects annual operational savings with three new schools of nearly $3.3 million, nearly $3.4 million with two new schools, and $4.4 million with just one new high school.

Nelson said his plan would reduce about 30 positions and provide an annual savings of $1.5 million. Pound, Appalachia and St. Paul could be converted to a K-12 administrative model — i.e., one principal and office staff for all schools in those towns — so administrative staff cuts would account for most of that, although Nelson allows a possible reduction of some teaching positions.

The comparative study projects achieving its annual savings via the elimination of about 70 teaching positions on a three-school model, or nearly $2.7 million per year based on current payroll numbers. A significant savings in athletic coaching positions would also be realized by going from six schools to three — from 172 coaching positions at the existing six schools to 111 at three schools, an annual savings of about $156,000.

Nelson’s option would provide none of that, or other cost savings comparisons between the various options other than, most significantly, transportation. Utility costs to operate six schools, for instance, would obviously always cost more each year for six schools than three, as well as maintaining six of everything — bands, athletic teams, non-athletic activities, etc. — rather than three.

During Monday’s board deliberations over the doomed three-school focus study, Nelson said some things do not carry a price tag.

“For people in the Appalachian Mountains, it’s all about community,” he said. “You need to understand this need for community and the need for identity.”

Nelson’s proposal also carves a special niche for Appalachia High School, because building on-site at Appalachia as he envisions all or at least most of the new schools to be built, is probably not feasible.

He said the K-12 administrative model poses special problems at Appalachia because the high school and elementary school are separated by about two miles, although a principal could conceivably shuttle back and forth.

For Appalachia, Nelson provides additional options that include building a new high school and leaving the elementary school as is; building a new high school and elementary school at one site; or renovating Appalachia High School and building a new elementary school near the high school. Nelson figures a cost of nearly $8.3 million to build a new elementary school.

Where things go from Monday’s stalemate is anybody’s guess, Nelson said.

“This is a difficult issue at best. It’s an emotional one and a financial one and an educational one, and it’s not going to be easy. But I think we have some basis for communications and a willingness to work together now. I had one board member approach me (after Monday’s marathon session) and said he was willing to work with these ideas, both ideas, so I think we are headed in the right direction with these people putting things out there for at least a solution,” he said.

“I don’t know where this is going. I can’t predict the future. I kind of see this as more of a compromise solution, and maybe we can work something out from there.”

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