Leader Blues

Monday, July 23, 2007

TOP STORY >>Schools are filled as fast as they go up in Cabot

Leader staff writer

Cabot’s eighth elementary school will open next month, but according to Superintendent Dr. Tony Thurman, the district’s elementary schools will still be bursting at the seams even with the completion of the new campus.

Stagecoach Elementary School will be open for the start of school Aug. 20, but administrators and school board officials realize the new school isn’t going to solve the nearly 9,000-strong district’s space problems, so they have been looking at alternative solutions since last year.

“We have stacks of students wanting to come here, to transfer in (from out of the district),” Thurman told the Cabot Lions Club Thursday afternoon.

But with all those students waiting to move to Cabot schools, Thurman’s biggest concern is the district’s tremendous growth.
“People move to Cabot for our neighborhood schools,” he said. “We try to keep our elementary schools at 500. We can’t do that with the amount of growth still coming in.”

Cabot changed its elementary attendance zones in May to allow for the opening of Stagecoach Elementary with the goal of reducing the number of students at the eight elementaries, but with continued growth, those numbers are going back up at every elementary school, Thurman said.

“Magness Creek is a stressor for the district. The Greystone area is only one-third full, and we can’t cope with the growth over there in that area,” he said, adding the district’s long-range plan includes (additional elementary schools at) the Magness Creek-Greystone area and the Westside Elementary area with all the new homes planned there.

“Right now, I have a little bit of wiggle room at Ward Central. Stagecoach has a little bit of wiggle room and Central Elementary has a small, small amount. We’re going to get tight again really quick, even though we just rezoned our schools to knock those numbers down,” Thurman said.

Thurman told the club that while his district is building schools rapidly, there is not enough industrial base in Cabot to support it.

“People hold us up to Bentonville, Fayetteville, Conway, but if you go to these towns, you’ll see they have industries as a tax base. Here we live off our residents and that makes it more difficult; money issues are more of a concern,” he said.

With the district’s growth, a long-range plan is needed, he said. To help come up with a plan, Thurman will soon be organizing a task force made up of community members, city council members or anyone interested in the future of the Cabot schools with the mission of finding “the best bang for the district’s buck.”

“The task force will be focused on providing input to the district on issues such as budget, growth and facilities,” he said. “We need the public to know we have these issues.”

Thurman’s task force would look at the options of either continuing to build elementary schools to hold 500 kids all over Cabot or look at a reconfigured method for the schools.

“We need direction on what our public will support,” Thurman said. “If we continue to build elementary schools the cost will continue to rise. When you open a new building you take on tremendous costs – lights, water, land acquisition, the cost of building, hiring ancillary staff (custodial and cafeteria crews, nurses, counselors, etc.).”

The playground equipment alone for Stagecoach Elementary cost $23,000, and the new books for the media center cost $70,000. Construction of the school cost $6.6 million for the 83,313 square-foot elementary.

As Thurman sees it, the task force will be the best way to handle the major issues facing the Cabot district.

“We need to know if our public wants us to continue opening new schools, knowing our costs and our per-pupil expenditure will rise. Or do you want us to look at reconfiguring, moving people around, and people always get upset when that happens, but that’s one way of using our existing facilities more efficiently to get our budget back under control. So that will be one of the purposes of this board,” Thurman explained.

To help the district with one additional cost of opening Stagecoach, the Cabot Lions Club purchased a vision-screening device, which costs approximately $1,150, for the new elementary school.

“This was to keep with our commitment to improving sight and hearing for all of the Cabot community,” Tom Anderson, Cabot Lions Club president, said. “The more we can do for the Cabot school system the better.”