Athens schools will probably go through some major changes in a few years.

Exactly what those changes may be is the multimillion-dollar question.

A discussion of the Athens ISD facilities plans stretched on for more than two hours at a school board meeting recently. Board Vice President Eric Smith was absent.

Plans to renovate Athens schools were originally mapped out in 2005 to prepare for future campus needs. Among the problems facing the campuses are student overcrowding and facilities that are non-handicapped-accessible. Some elementary campuses, such as Bel Air Elementary and R.C. Fisher, require larger classrooms. Upgrading the campuses is expected to take several years.

A 17-member Citizens Facilities Committee (CFC) was assembled in May to come up with a comprehensive solution. The committee, chaired by former school board president Will Davies, met in weekly discussion groups until June 18, while AISD administrators explored similar plans.

The proposals were presented to the board by AISD Assistant Superintendent Mike Green recently. The CFC proposal is the cheapest plan at about $33 million. The plan would involve moving the kindergarten through third grades into the Athens Intermediate campus, putting about 1,200 students under one roof.

A new fifth grade campus would also be built under the CFC plan. Other changes would include Athens High School incorporating Athens Annex, R.C. Fisher being remodeled for pre-Kindergarten and Head Start students and a sixth grade wing being added to Athens Middle School.

The district’s Proposal A, estimated at $40.9 million, calls for the closing of the Bel Air Elementary and South Athens Elementary campuses. The bulk of the cost would go toward building a new kindergarten through second grade campus.

Other changes would include changing R.C. Fisher from a sixth grade campus to a pre-kindergarten campus, adding a sixth grade wing to AMS and a third grade wing to Athens Intermediate, and incorporating the Annex into AHS.

Proposal B, estimated at $35.9 million, would require closing Bel Air Elementary and R.C. Fisher. The South Athens campus would be renovated for pre-Kindergarten and Head Start students, and a sixth grade wing would be added to AMS. AHS would incorporate the Annex, and Athens Intermediate would also be renovated.

In the meeting, Green said the American Association of School Administrators has found that 74 percent of U.S. public school campuses should be “replaced or repaired immediately.” A further 14 percent are considered “inadequate places of learning.”

Trustee Robert Risko said he didn’t think those findings applied to Athens schools.

“I would say that South (Athens) being rated Exemplary is a pretty good example of that,” Risko said. He then referred to December 2006 editions of “Texas Monthly,” which rated R.C. Fisher highly in a comparison of middle school scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.

“R.C. Fisher is one of our oldest campuses, and it was just ranked the fourth best elementary school in the state by Texas Monthly,” he said. “That’s some pretty good research that I’d say contradicts that.”

Later, Green mentioned that he reviewed the CFC plan and the district’s two proposals before the Athens Leadership Institute earlier this year.

“We presented our facilities plans to them,” he said. “There’s 25 prominent citizens who I believe would support any plan we’ve put forward.”

He cautioned the trustees that they should vote for a plan they could agree on unanimously.

Without a unanimous vote, Green said, “what’s gonna happen? It’s not gonna work. It’s called teamwork.” He added that a proposal might lose approval with area voters without the board’s full backing.

“Who loses? I was gonna say the kids, but I think it’s all of us — the students, the parents, the staff, the community,” Green said.

Trustee Ginger Kirk told Green she thought one alternative, the district’s immediate needs plan, was being overlooked. A $13.5 million spending blueprint for campus improvements — such as electrical work and roof repairs — was put together by the district around December 2006.

“Those are just immediate, one- to three-year needs that do not address any of the long-term needs,” Green said yesterday.

Kirk said the administration should consider the immediate needs before using a more expensive plan.

“This really angers me,” Kirk said. “You took a poll of the board...”

“It was unanimous,” Risko interjected.

Kirk continued, “...and we agreed on the $12 million (plan). That was what we impressed upon the committee. I feel like the wishes of the board have been totally ignored.

“You’ve given a wonderful presentation, but you’ve done A, B and C. Where’s D?”

But the fate of R.C. Fisher was the biggest point of dispute. Built in 1958, the campus is the oldest in the district. The second oldest, South Athens Elementary, was built in 1960.

By today’s standards, R.C. Fisher has undersized classrooms and a wheelchair-unfriendly floorplan. R.C. Fisher had classroom renovations in 1978 — the only time its learning areas have been altered in nearly 50 years. The other elementary campuses have each been renovated at least twice.

Because R.C. Fisher is an older facility and caters only to sixth graders, Green said the district is considering closing the campus. But some trustees disagreed with the idea.

Risko began by voicing concern for the staff of R.C. Fisher, particularly maintenance employees, if the campus was closed.

“If we’re closing the campus ... what are they gonna do?” he asked. “Now we’re recommending closing that campus after we invested money in that campus?”

Green answered that no positions would be terminated if the campus closed, and personnel would be reduced through attrition.

“My concern for keeping a campus open for one grade level is that the students who need the most help are hurting most,” AISD Superintendent Fred Hayes said. “When they go to sixth grade, they’ll still be recognized, but their grades drop.” He added that the R.C. Fisher students’ grades dropped further in the transition to seventh grade.

Risko countered that the campus is a linchpin of pride for north Athens residents.

“When the school goes, so does the community,” Risko said. “When you take something out that’s a point of pride in a community, like R.C. Fisher, I think that’s a real detriment.”

Hayes replied that he agreed “wholeheartedly.”

“I don’t want to slap anybody’s hand for doing what they thought was best,” School Board President David Freeman said. “I think a lot of work went into this.”

He went on to call R.C. Fisher “a school that has taken a lot of resources.”

“I like B in the proposal, because financially, it stops the age of the other campuses,” Freeman said. “But I know these campuses carry a lot of emotions with them.”

Will Davies, who attended the meeting, was called upon to answer questions about the CFC findings. He said the CFC “made every attempt” to create a plan the trustees and the general community would support.

“We weren’t able to do that, to be quite honest with you,” Davies said, describing the change to Athens Intermediate as a “big, huge (campus) configuration.” He said such a configuration would probably be rejected by the community.

“In your mind, can it be done without that configuration?” Freeman asked.

“Yes, but I don’t think that would be the best,” Davies replied. “We couldn’t sell it to ourselves, to tell you the truth.”

Freeman said he’d heard north Athens residents voice support for keeping the campus open at church and other social gatherings.

“I’m not hearing that from the Anglo constituents, maybe because it’s not a concern. Maybe they’ve never lived on that side of the fence,” Freeman said. “If you go with the Citizens Committee proposal, somebody’s gonna have to do a very good sales job to convince people that segregation is not going to be the outcome of that.”

Other trustees favored closing R.C. Fisher because of its antiquated facilities.

“There’s not even science labs at R.C. Fisher,” Trustee Raymond Williams said. Hayes agreed that there should be adequate science classrooms at the sixth grade level.

An informal poll of the board members resulted in no majority support for any of the plans. Freeman then proposed choosing two facilities plans to present to voters, with one of the plans to be used as a “safety net.”

“Do you feel that’s the best option for us, as a board?” Trustee Jennie Mahmoud asked.

“No, I do not,” Freeman replied. “But if there’s no compromise, what can I do? Everyone feels differently, and it’s their right to feel that way.”

No facilities proposal was voted on at the meeting.

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e-mail dgordon@athensreview.com

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