October 23, 2013

‘Bigger and bigger and bigger’

Committee to help solve overcapacity concerns

By Christopher Smith

— Even as members of the Dalton Board of Education voted Tuesday night to approve a $9.39 million dollar price cap to expand Dalton Middle School, it was clear by school projections the expansion won’t stop overcrowding in city schools.

The source of school growth is at Dalton Middle and Dalton High School — grades 6 through 12. The student population in those grades is expected to increase from 3,815 students next year to 4,080 students in 2018, based on projections provided by school officials.

The growth can be tied to an increase in Hispanic students, school officials have long said, with many Latino families remaining in Dalton as opposed to being transient.

“We keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger,” Superintendent Jim Hawkins said.

That’s why board members also voted Tuesday night to give Hawkins power to organize a committee of community members who will help school officials find a solution to their unprecedented growth.

Dalton Middle has swelled from 1,411 students in 2008 to its capacity limit of 1,700 students this year. The expansion, which is expected to be completed by August 2014, will make room for about 60 more students. School officials are predicting 1,841 students in the middle school by 2018.

At Dalton High, the student population has risen from 1,603 students in 2008 to approximately 1,650 students now. School officials expect 1,939 students by 2018, exceeding the school cap of 1,875.

Capacity limits are set by the state Department of Education, but act as guidelines and not canon. Limits are not tied to fire codes, school officials said, which assigns capacity limits to individual rooms within the school and not the school itself.

“We can fit more students in the school,” said Pat Holloway, spokeswoman for the city school system. “It wouldn’t be pleasant.”

So who will be on the committee and how many members will it have?

Those questions won’t fully be answered until at least February, Hawkins said, after he oversees interviews and selection. School officials have created an email, feedback@dalton.k12.ga.us, for anyone to send ideas to, including committee nominees.

Hawkins said the committee will be comprised of two school board members, community members, teachers, coaches, activity sponsors, administrators and “others with an interest in enhancing education in Dalton.”

“We want to vet this to have balanced membership (on the committee),” he said. “We don’t want to stack it for or against (any specific solutions).”

The group will “be as big enough to get enough voices in and small enough to make it efficient,” Hawkins added.  

The committee will make a recommendation to the board no later than September 2014, he said, adding that the school board will have the final say. Some possible solutions could include one or more new schools, expansion to existing schools or both, he said, emphasizing that nothing is definite.

“The study group may make a discovery on a solution we haven’t thought about,” he said.

One thing that seems definite is keeping Morris Innovative High School a “school of choice” as oppose to changing it into a traditional high school zoned to relieve overcrowding at Dalton High, Hawkins said.

He said reorganizing Morris wouldn’t help much because the school could only house 500 students before it too was overcapacity. It already has a student body of approximately 350.