December 3, 2013

‘Bad to be big’?

School system, community talk growth

The community is a frog in a pot of hot water, said Brian Suits, principal of Dalton Middle School.

The oft-said metaphor of a frog who doesn’t know it is boiling until it’s too late works well when discussing the growing student enrollment at Dalton Public Schools, Suits said.

Several community members and school leaders met in the Dalton High School Commons area Tuesday night to discuss the future of the school system and its impact on the community. School leaders are seeking community input on how to address their growth and are creating a committee to bring a recommendation to the city school board by September 2014.

School officials said they have roughly 70 nominees for the group and plan to name roughly 10 to 15 members this month.

“Any idea (on dealing with enrollment) will be considered,” said Danny Crutchfield, chairman of the city school board.

The system has gone from 5,659 students in 2003 to about 7,700 students today. Most of that growth has been in grades 6 through 12. Dalton Middle has swelled from 1,218 in 2003 to roughly 1,700 now, while Dalton High has gone from 1,374 in 2003 to approximately 1,640 today. Both schools are reaching overcapacity, even after Dalton Middle undergoes an expansion to make room for about 60 more students.

Halfway through 2018 school officials are expecting 1,841 students at the middle school and 1,939 students at the high school. Projections are not 100 percent certain, said Jennifer Phinney, director of school support.

So what are the solutions being talked about? Some are saying a new high school, some are saying a new middle school, some are saying a hybrid of the two, some are saying no new school at all.

Several at the Tuesday night meeting expressed concerned that the school system’s academic and athletic tradition could be hurt by becoming a larger system or splitting the high school.

Principals and administrators said any decision will “impact” several things, from how many school lunch periods are held a day to how far local student athletes have to drive to play in games. Because of its size, Dalton High is moving from Class 4A to Class 5A for the 2014-2016 school years (see more in Sports, page 1B), resulting in trips as long as 60 miles away. All of this, several said, impacts the “culture” of the larger community.

Every time the school grows, Suits said, “there’s a little something that we trade off,” adding that middle school pep rallies are split up because “we don’t have a place on our campus to hold our entire student body.”

Dalton High Principal Steve Bartoo agreed.

“It’s not necessarily bad to be big, but it will be much, much different and we will lose some things,” Bartoo said, adding that “we can be big, but is that really what you want to do? Is that really the best thing for our kids and is that the best thing for our school community?”

Suits said regardless of what happens, the situation has to be addressed.

“Otherwise, we’re going to be that frog and I’d hate to see where that leads eventually,” he said.

One thing is certain, Crutchfield said: most practical solutions to deal with the growing student body will likely require construction and millions in taxpayer money.

“We don’t have an endless supply of money,” he said. “(But we will) be responsible to the taxpayer and do the very best we can. But obviously it is a limited supply.”

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