North Alabama schools preparing for auto growth
By JEAN COLE
Feb. 20, 2018
ATHENS, Ala. (AP) — With the promise of growth from a new Toyota-Mazda plant and its support industries, city and county schools in north Alabama will have to be able to handle more students.
The heads of school systems in Athens and Limestone County believe they are either ready to handle more students or can get ready when the time comes.
"We are covered for the next 10 years for average growth," said Athens City Schools Superintendent Trey Holladay. "We feel very good about the next five years with no trouble."
Holladay said a $55 million high school under construction will hold 1,500 students without an addition.
"We could go 400 per grade, but we have less than 300 per grade now," he said.
When high-schoolers move to their new building, middle-school students will move to the old high school, where there is plenty of room for growth. Other schools also have room.
"We've got enough for 80 more per grade in grades K-3," Holladay said.
He wants to keep elementary schools at a maximum of 500 to 550 students.
"We want to keep in mind the hometown feel as we grow, and not just add onto an existing building but add a new school," he said. "We don't want a mega-elementary school."
Limestone County Schools Superintendent Tom Sisk is focused on training enough students to supply industries rather than on whether current school facilities need expansion.
"We're not ready; no one is going to be ready for that kind of growth so quickly," Sisk said.
He said he and superintendents from Athens, Decatur and Lauderdale County schools as well as industry leaders have already met with industry leaders and others to carve out a plan for growth.
Sisk said the group also includes the state automotive association, Alabama Industrial Development Training, Calhoun Community College and various industry leaders. He said the group is also forming partnerships with Carpenter Technologies, an existing Limestone industry. Tom Hill, head of the Limestone County Economic Development Association, has been "a catalyst for bringing the right people into the room," he said.
Sask said the group is looking at a vacant building as a place to train for the region. He said students from five regions would be sent to the facility, which would be supported by the school systems.
"It would be a more regional approach to training students needed to supply industries," he said. "So, we have a vision, but we are not ready to communicate it yet."
While Sisk believes additional students will surely result from new industries coming in, he does not see how anyone can estimate how many students that will be.
"We are going to have 36,000 jobs on us in about 10 years, based on different estimates, but that doesn't translate to 36,000 students," he said. "We don't know how many will be in Limestone, how many will be in Lauderdale or Decatur."
"We have space in existing (school) facilities," Sisk said, noting that does not mean expansion will not be required. However, he said he can't justify expanding until he knows how many students will be coming into the Limestone County system.
He guessed the region would "have some growing pains," which might result in some portable classrooms until school systems get reimbursed by the state and can expand.
"But, to rush out and build a high school or elementary school would be foolish," he said.
Readying a workforce isn't just about new manufacturing.
"The new capacity we are trying to build will support that, but it is equally important that we demonstrate to the factories already here that we love them and will continue to support them," Sisk said. "They are worried the new industries will cherry-pick their best employees. We have to expand the capacity (number of available trained workers), and that site will do that."
Sisk said Limestone schools currently graduate about 750 students a year and 40 percent of them will go to college. He said area schools will need to turn out 5,000 to 6,000 trained workers for the region.
Information from: The News Courier, http://www.enewscourier.com