published Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

Whitfield approves $24 million school rebuild


by Adam Crisp

ABOUT THE SCHOOL

Eastbrook Elementary School

• Year built: 1965

• Enrollment: 886

• State rating: Distinguished

• Rebuild cost: $24.1 million

Source: Whitfield County Schools, 2009 data

DALTON, Ga.—A decision Monday on whether to rebuild a Whitfield County middle school split school board members and boiled down to a decision between breaking promises or being cautious in fragile economic times.

Board members voted 3-2 to rebuild the ramshackle Eastbrook Middle School for $24.1 million. But there are still questions about how the project will be financed and whether the school system can afford the building if a 1 cent sales tax isn’t approved by voters this fall.

New board members Bill Worley and Rodney Lock voted against the project, though they agreed Eastbrook was in bad shape. But members who have been on the board longer said they had promised a new school for the rural part of eastern Whitfield served by Eastbrook. Louis Fordam, Gary Brock and Thomas Barton voted for the project.

“It’s a pretty major project that, if you talk to the people of Eastbrook, they believe has already been committed to them,” said Chairman Louis Fordham, who joined the board in January.

But if voters don’t approve a 1 cent education special project local option sales tax — an ESPLOST — in November, the renovations may not happen, he said.

“If we don’t have ESPLOST IV, we can’t commit to this school,” Fordham said. “We are being asked to approve something that we desperately need ESPLOST for.”

County schools, which share two-thirds of the 1 cent sales tax revenue with Dalton City Schools, are pushing hard for the tax renewal, which would be the fourth over the last 20 or so years. Dalton Mayor David Pennington, who has no authority over schools,publicly has opposed the tax renewal.

School officials plan to demolish Eastbrook’s current classroom building, then build a new one atop the school’s baseball and softball fields. The fields may be rebuilt on school grounds if there’s money available, school board members said. The current gym will stay, but plans call for a new roof.

Up against a March 6 deadline, county school officials were pressing for Monday’s vote because, if the Sunday deadline lapsed, they worried that construction costs would increase and Eastbrook would be more costly.

“We strongly believe if you delay a decision, it’s going to cost you more,” said Assistant Superintendent Richard Schoen.

Veteran board members said the school had been promised by previous boards.

“When I came on the board, we were looking at a whole different scenario,” Barton said. “We promised and said that Eastbrook would be next, and I’ve made that commitment to those people. ... I’m as good as my word.”

Despite that, Worley and Lock said they couldn’t vote for the project because of the poor economy.

“I know it needs to be done, but ask yourself one question: If you was building a house, would you do it today?” Lock asked. “The way things are, and that we don’t know where this money is coming from, that’s what bothers me.”

about Adam Crisp...

Adam Crisp covers education issues for the Times Free Press. He joined the paper's staff in 2007 and initially covered crime, public safety, courts and general assignment topics. Prior to Chattanooga, Crisp was a crime reporter at the Savannah Morning News and has been a reporter and editor at community newspapers in southeast Georgia. In college, he led his student paper to a first-place general excellence award from the Georgia College Press Association. He earned ...

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