“The first question I hear is ‘why did it take so long to get this information out?’” he said. “We are not drawing lines manually like in the old days; we’re using software that plans transportation routes that will also create districts for schools.”
The superintendent said implementing a new student information system held up the process and that, once it was ready, that had to be merged with the E911 road data from the sheriff’s department to create the final map.
“My favorite question so far has been if we would use common sense when drawing lines,” he said. “If you live across the street from a school, no, your child will not have to ride a bus to another school.”
That question came from a survey that closed Jan. 19 that gathered input from parents. Newton said there were 200-plus responses, and he said he took every comment into consideration. He also issued a response summary that is available on the system’s website, www.jones.k12.ga.us.
The superintendent said creating the new elementary school districts was not easy but had to be done.
“We know the thought of children having to change schools is tough,” he said. “Children and parents have built relationships with teachers and administrators, but most everyone staffing Turnerwoods will be coming from the other schools.”
Newton said, in respect to transportation, they did take the length of bus routes into account, but the large geographic size of the county presents challenges.
“We did take traffic congestion into account,” he said, “but we have very little control over that. Will an elementary school on Turnerwoods put a lot of buses on down that road? Of course.”
The superintendent’s primary goal was to balance the programs at each of the schools to have an average of 650 students each.
“If past growth patterns continue, Gray Elementary and Dames Ferry will continue to see the largest growth,” he said.
The number of students on free and reduced lunch was also taken into consideration. Mattie Wells is currently a Title One school, which means it is eligible for federal funds due to its demographics.
“Turnerwoods Elementary may be eligible for Title One funding, but that remains to be seen,” he said.
Questions from parents
If a parent does not want a child to attend a certain school, they are given the option to choose another school under a state law passed last year. In order to move, however, space must be available at the new school.
“Turnerwoods will not be eligible as a school to move children to next year since it’s a new school,” he said. “That’s a part of HB 251 passed last year.”
Parents also expressed concern about fourth-graders being able to finish fifth grade in the same school.
“As a district, we’re trying to give options for moving, but we have to look at staffing,” he said. “Parents would have to provide transportation, and even if we do allow a child to finish in the same school, a younger sibling would have to stay at the original school.”
Some who participated in the survey said they moved into certain neighborhoods for certain schools, but Newton said moving to a part of the county to be in a particular district never guarantees their children will attend a certain school.
“For example, the close proximity of Turnerwoods and Gray Elementary schools presented a big challenge for those living within Gray,” he said.
Newton said the plan is to hire no new staff, but he cannot guarantee that.
“Kindergarten is the great unknown,” he said. “We never really know exactly how many students we’re going to have until parents finish registering and kids show up on the first day.”
The superintendent said staff members at the board office have contacted daycare centers, churches, and other Pre-K programs to get an idea of how many kindergarten students to expect.
Newton explained that teachers and staff will be moved with students.
“If 400 students from Gray Elementary go to Turnerwoods, a proportional number of teachers and staff will go with them,” he said. “Some moves will be voluntary, others involuntary, but we don’t have the luxury of hiring new people.”
The plus, though, according to the superintendent, is that parents and students should be familiar with many of the teachers and staff at the new school.
The principal of Turnerwoods has not yet been selected, but Newton said the hiring process will begin in May when the position is officially advertised.
He also wanted to assure parents that programs for students with disabilities and gifted services will be available just as in other schools.
“This has been a slow, deliberate process,” Newton said. “We have used software, the current lines, and the input from parents has been helpful.”
The district lines were published Feb. 10, the day this edition was printed and available in stores, and the map can be viewed digitally at the school system’s website, allowing interested persons to zoom in to look at certain areas. Enlarged prints are also available at each elementary school.
A community forum is scheduled for Feb. 22, 6:30 p.m., at the Jones County High Fine Arts Center. Anyone with questions or concerns can submit them online or in writing, and those issues will be addressed at the forum.
“Parents and others in the community may see things that the board of education missed,” he said. “If that’s the case, we want to know.”
The finalized district lines will be voted on at the March 7 board meeting. After that point, staffing changes will be the next focus.
Five-year facilities plan
Parents will continue to see changes as Mattie Wells and Gray Elementary are closed.
“Next year, we will begin the consolidation of Mattie Wells Elementary and Wells Primary,” Newton said. “This year’s second grade will remain at the primary school, but third- and fourth-graders will be going to Clifton Ridge Middle while an addition is being built onto Wells Primary.”
He said the fourth- and fifth-graders will be in a closed setting from the middle school, and that as the addition to Wells Primary opens, third-graders will move up to fourth grade on the same campus while fifth-graders stay at Clifton Ridge to prepare for sixth grade.
Newton explained shifting the students around and waiting to begin construction on the addition at Wells Primary has to do with where money comes from to complete construction.
“We could’ve started this year, but by waiting, we can quality for additional state credits,” he said. “The state continues to fund capital outlay at 100 percent, which means no local dollars have to be spent.”
Newton said new construction is the only area that the state has not cut funding and feels taking advantage of those funds by closing Mattie Wells now and saving local taxpayers millions of dollars is the right thing to do.
“We will also have to open a new Gray Elementary in three-five years to keep up with state standards,” he said. “Renovating and modifying the school could cost $5-8 million, or we can begin earning state credits to build a new school.
“We are trying to be mindful of taxpayers and maximize what the state will do with our system.”
Newton pointed out that state funds not only provide facilities for local students to learn but also act as a boost to the local economy.
“Capital outlay stimulates the economy by creating jobs, putting people to work,” he said. “It’s an investment in the community and education. And, best of all, Turnerwoods Elementary will be paid for as it’s completed rather than having long-term bond debt.”