SMYRNA — South Cobb parents and school district officials were at odds Wednesday night over plans to expand nearby schools that some parents said did not live up to expectations.
Members of the Cobb Board of Education and school district as well as planners for the school expansion projects presented specific plans for Campbell, Pebblebrook and Osborne high schools, King Springs and Harmony Leland elementary schools and discussed progress on finding land for an additional middle school in Smyrna. All the projects are set to be funded by the district’s special 1 percent sales tax, or SPLOST.
Parents and community members expressed many concerns about the plans, among them that expansions would not solve capacity issues far enough into the future and that south Cobb has been overlooked.
During a question and answer session on each of the projects, parents and other audience members expressed their concern for the lack of capacity they say will still exist even with new facilities in coming years. But James Wilson, demographer and consultant on the expansion projects, said based on elementary school enrollment trends, Cobb County can expect a drop or leveling off in later grade enrollment.
Wilson said new projections, which will be updated in May, will reflect a drop in enrollment being seen in kindergarten through second grade. He said projections from 2015, which several audience members referenced, are no longer accurate. Those older projections show Campbell High School’s enrollment growing to about 3,700 students in the 2023-24 school year.
“We’re pretty confident in what our enrollment projections are going to be the first two, three, maybe four years, and then after that there has to be a complete redo or reworking to see where we are, because things simply change with the economy and subdivisions and developments and building permits and so on,” Wilson said. “Last year was our fourth year, so those are probably not as clear as they will be this coming May. ... I can tell you that the district as a whole has had exceptional growth during the course of the years. ... You will see that every grade, three through 12, the district is growing from four (or) five years ago to (today). (But in) kindergarten, first and second grade, it flipped.”
He added that early indicators show next year’s kindergarten enrollment will be “below again,” confirming his suggestion. He said he feels “very confident” that “we’re going to start seeing, districtwide, a decline in enrollment.” South Cobb’s enrollment, he said, is expected to stay relatively level.
Many in the audience said they disagreed with the assessment for schools across south Cobb. Tony Waybright, parent of a Campbell High School sophomore and member of the school council, said he believes the plans for Campbell High should be revised to accommodate more students.
Waybright said even if the projections reveal a drop in enrollment, that information was not publicized until Wednesday.
“In 2017, (Campbell) had 2,833 students compared to the estimate of 2,772, so we were above estimate. In October of 2018, we had 2,895, which is six above, so we’re right on track. Campbell has been right on track following this curve up,” he said. “So suddenly, (Wilson is) insisting that we’re going to flatten off. Now, why was that never presented to the community that there was a dramatic adjustment to the projections? The community was preparing and expecting a school based on these projections, that’s what was discussed when SPLOST was put together before the vote.”
Waybright said that while certain elementary schools have seen drops in enrollment, others, including those that feed into Campbell High School, have continued to grow.
“They’re going to spend $30 million to let us be 30 or 40 or 50 students more than what we are right now. There’s simply no room for growth in this area,” he said. “If we turn out to be over (the) estimate, and we get closer to the original 3,700 number, there’s nowhere for us to redistrict. There’s just nowhere.”
Nick Parker, the school district’s SPLOST director, said in a written statement Thursday that the district has been assessing the needs of Campbell High and specifically the areas that formerly held Wills High School and Nash Middle School. Parker said through assessments of current classroom needs, future enrollment and long-term solutions, the district has determined that total classroom needs should instead accommodate approximately 3,000 students.
“We do assess the future needs of our schools and utilize the expertise of our architects and staff, as well as resources available to us such as enrollment projections, etc. to determine the scope of all projects,” he said.
Parker said the district plans for future growth, but it is important to note that there are finite budgets and the district is restricted to using SPLOST-collected funds.
“Consequently, we have responsibility for funding all projects across all 112 schools and attempt to provide the best learning environment for all students across the district,” he said.
Parker added that throughout the many steps of planning for SPLOST projects, members of the community are welcome to give their input and express their concern on projects. He said school principals and other staff serve as “the conduit for any community input.”
“The principal has many avenues to receive input from the local community, including school councils, PTAs, and, of course, the day to day opportunity to meet with parents, students and staff for input,” he said.
Voters approved the education SPLOST V in March 2017, and collections began in January. The five-year tax will sunset at the end of 2023, and revenue will be divided between the Cobb and Marietta school systems based on enrollment.
Cobb School District officials previously told the MDJ they expect the renewed tax to bring in more than $797 million, and Marietta City Schools is expected to earn $62.5 million.
Education SPLOST projects highlighted at Wednesday’s town hall include replacement facilities for Harmony Leland and King Springs elementary schools, land acquisition for a new Smyrna-area middle school, expansion and improvements of Campbell, Pebblebrook and Osborne high schools and construction of a career academy on Osborne’s campus.