Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Antioch schools need answers

By Amy Griffith,

Rampant growth in the Antioch area continues to put a strain on schools, but board and Council members say funding new construction is still a long way from reality. Matthew Williams/The City Paper

All but two Antioch cluster elementary schools are over capacity, and people across Nashville — including Mayor Karl Dean, Metro Council members and the Board of Education — have noticed.

But that doesn’t mean there will be money to solve the problem anytime soon.

Metro Nashville Public Schools capital master plan, approved in January of 2008, includes allocation of funds for a new Antioch elementary school sometime during the 2010-2011 school year. MNPS Public Relations Coordinator Olivia Brown said it typically takes two years from the time of funding for a new school to open — one year for design and one for construction — meaning that a new elementary school in the Antioch cluster would probably not be opened until five years from now.

The capital master plan is flexible and can be amended by the school board, a step that school board member Karen Johnson says should be taken. Johnson’s district includes the Antioch cluster.

“We obviously can’t wait three years. We have to get it in the next year’s capital budget. There is no way we can wait beyond that time,” Johnson said. “A lot is going on in the area, and yet we don’t get the resources.”

The shortage of classrooms in Antioch is part of a larger problem in the area, as Metro as a whole works to catch up with providing services in Southeastern Davidson County. The Metro Parks Department has called Antioch underserved. Council members as well as other community leaders are advocating for a community center for the area.

Johnson said she was cheered by a recent motion of the MNPS Rezoning Task Force, which voted on Friday to recommend that the district undertake a feasibility study for a new Antioch elementary school. The approved motion also included a recommendation that Una Elementary School be returned to the Antioch cluster, after it was recently changed to the McGavock cluster to relieve overcrowding.

The task force’s proposed student assignment plan is a work in progress until at least this May — their decision to shift Una students won’t necessarily make it to the panel’s final set of recommendations to the school board, and the school board won’t necessarily follow up on everything the task force recommends. But Johnson nonetheless considered the decision good news.

The task force isn’t the only local entity taking note of conditions in Antioch. Mayor Karl Dean said publicly in February that he agrees there is a need for more educational services in the Antioch area. At the time, Dean said that part of town has not received the “resources” it needs. Dean spokesperson Janel Lacy said Tuesday those comments still reflect the mayor’s views.

And earlier in February, Metro Council approved a motion expressing support for the school board in planning for a new elementary and middle school in the area.

In this tight budget year, however, it may be that no amount of political support will be enough.

“I do not see any money in the Metro budget for a new elementary school at this time,” said Megan Barry, an at-large Council member who supported the resolution, on Monday. “We did do some investigation. It is recommended at some point that another elementary school is needed, but it’s not like it’s critical at this instant.”

As Nashville’s housing market has made Antioch an increasingly economical place to live within Davidson County, the population there has boomed. MNPS has invested in a number of new classrooms in the area over the course of recent years, most notably construction of Cane Ridge High School, which will open this fall and lead to creation of the new Cane Ridge cluster.

Opening the Cane Ridge cluster will create some space, according to MNPS’s Brown. A.Z. Kelley and Maxwell elementary schools, which are operating at 106 and 100 percent capacities respectively, will both have their fifth-grades established at Cane Ridge’s Thurgood Marshall Middle this fall.

Upcoming projects — some of which will be put out for bidding this summer – are also geared to alleviate some of the overcrowding. Cole Elementary, which is operating at 128 percent of capacity, and Moss Elementary, which is at 113 percent of its capacity, will both be getting additions.

Brown said Joe Edgens, executive director for facilities and operations at MNPS, said the three elementary schools most likely to be overcrowded in the upcoming school year are Lakeview Design Center, Mt. View Elementary and Thomas A. Edison Elementary. These schools are currently operating at 112, 115 and 100 percent capacities, respectively.

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