By Robert Carter
North Jefferson News
SECOND OF A SERIES — In his first few weeks as the superintendent of the Jefferson County Schools, Dr. Stephen Nowlin has discovered what many in the system have known for some time: many facilities, even brand new schools, are pushed to their limits.
Barely three years old, Gardendale High School is already almost full. Just steps away, Gardendale Elementary and Bragg Middle are at capacity.
“When I came to visit a class at the elementary school, I had trouble finding a parking space,” Nowlin said.
Fultondale has its own issues, from an elementary school that is overflowing to a high school that is the smallest in the system — and by far the oldest. The building that began life as New Castle High is nearing its 50th year of service, and houses the smallest student population of any high school in the system.
A previous proposal would have closed the high school once Gardendale High’s new facility was completed, with Fultondale students to be split between that and Erwin, now Center Point High. That plan was met with vocal opposition.
“All communities take pride in their school, so I understand why folks in Fultondale want their own school, and don’t want to be zoned for any other school,” Nowlin said.
“Fultondale is one of the next areas where we’re going to have to do something, but we’re going to have to look at all the alternatives. We do not have the money for something like that in the next year. We’re going to try to accumulate some money over the next few years, and our board and its capital planning committee will put together a plan in the next month or two.”
Other facilities, particularly elementary schools, are in need of some upgrades as well. One example is Kermit Johnson Elementary, located between Pinson and Trafford.
“The lunchroom is just too small, and we’re going to have to build something and shift some things around there,” Nowlin said. “That’s not as expensive, so that’s something that should get done soon.”
Nowlin and the system are in good financial shape at the moment, but changes on the state level can often throw a monkey wrench into the best-laid plans.
“History shows that we have proration in Alabama for two or three years, about once every 10 years,” he said. “We stared the year with a three-month operating balance, more than the one month required by the state. We’ll be spending a little more for things like our new computers, but we’ll still be well above two months [reserve].”
NEXT: What happens if Gardendale breaks away from Jefferson County Schools?