As the Rome City Commission moves toward deciding whether to back $103 million in bonds for a new Rome Middle School, commissioners this week toured the current facility and heard two proposals for the future of the school.
Rome Middle School was built in 1992 to house approximately 700 students. Currently there are 996 students at the facility and estimates for the future show a growing student population.
The school system’s largest elementary school — West End Elementary — currently has a population comparable to the middle school. The school system has six elementary schools in all, and if the sixth grade is moved to the middle school, using current enrollment numbers, that would raise the RMS enrollment to 1,443 students.
The proposal is a school that would be upsized to be able to house 2,000 students from sixth to eighth grades, alleviating some of the overcrowding in the elementary schools. The new school would also be purpose-built to allow expansion for another 500 students.
The total estimated price of a new school on Three Rivers Drive, across Veterans Memorial Highway from the existing one, is $119 million. There would be $16 million coming from state capital outlay funds on top of a voter-approved education special purpose local option sales tax that will fund approximately $50 million of the facility.
In all, if bonds are backed by the city, the total price tag would come to $180 million over the course of 20 years. That includes using the current municipal bond rate of 4.14% to estimate yearly interest — approximately $4 million a year for two decades.
By stretching payments on the bonds out over 20 years, they’re hoping not to see a millage rate increase for City of Rome taxpayers. Future education SPLOST measures could also allay additional costs.
However, the city can’t issue bonds dependent on future education SPLOST votes. The city government would have to back them. If an education SPLOST package falls through, payment for the facility would still be guaranteed through the commission’s ability to tax city property owners.
As of this point, the price tag has been the main concern voiced by city commissioners. However, the commission overall appears to be leaning toward backing bonds for the project.
The question remains which project they will back. During this week’s tour, plans were presented for the possibility of building another structure on the middle school’s football field and then renovating the entire current middle school building.
While that’s a lower cost, estimated at around $80 million, it doesn’t solve the issues the combined campus has.
The most noticeable of those issues is traffic. Superintendent Eric Holland said their main concern is student safety. With traffic congestion comes frustration and with that many kids moving to get to cars and buses, he said, it’s only a matter of time before something bad happens.
Issues with the current facilities
Another issue with the idea of renovating the current middle school is the already cramped hallways. To renovate the bathrooms to make them American Disabilities Act compliant, the school system’s director of security, Jason Self, said they would need to be expanded into the halls.
“Smaller hallways in an overcrowded building are not a good situation,” Self said. It’s not good from a security and safety standpoint, it’s not good for students with disabilities or in wheelchairs, it’s not good for many reasons, he said.
In addition, to deal with the current overcrowding, classrooms have been created from storage areas. He pointed to the German language classroom during the tour and said it also contains the staff bathroom. So if a staff member needs to use the facilities during a class period, they have to interrupt the class to get to the bathroom.
Another safety issue, Self said, is that classrooms are supposed to have two points of entry so students can evacuate in case of an emergency. Many of the classrooms only exit into an enclosed courtyard with no point of egress.
“You can’t exit the building,” he told city commissioners.
He also led commissioners through the gym. A basketball game was in progress and he pointed to the bleachers, which cannot be fully extended during a basketball or volleyball game. He also talked about the gym lacking proper ventilation and air-conditioning.
“Imagine the summer humidity. It gets soupy in here,” Self said. On top of that, if the school system wishes to renovate the existing facility instead of purchasing a new one, they’ll have to rip out the older locker rooms to make them ADA compliant.
One of the plans for a larger, new facility is to move the sixth graders from the elementary schools to the middle school to alleviate overcrowded elementary schools.
Other issues with the facility are air-circulation issues; housing the STEM programs, which are in retrofitted mobile classrooms; and access to an expansion building that also serves special needs students.
In the case of a tornado watch, like on Thursday, STEM students have to be evacuated into main building, further overcrowding the facility.
Self said that, because of limited space, all of the larger rooms have become multi-purpose rooms, even the cafeteria. The school feeds 1,000 students during five lunch periods every day. To deal with congestion during lunch, the school also has several teachers feeding students in their classroom.
“That’s a problem. That’s a definite problem,” RMS Principal Christian Barnes said.