Surprise council vote allows new site for Jacksonville school
by Laura Gaddy
Feb 19, 2014 | 6209 views |  0 comments | 128 128 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A Kitty Stone Elementary teacher leaves the school at the end of the day. The city is looking into building a new school.  (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)
A Kitty Stone Elementary teacher leaves the school at the end of the day. The city is looking into building a new school. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)
JACKSONVILLE — The City Council here cast an unexpected vote Wednesday that will allow the local school board to move forward with plans for a new elementary school near George Douthit Drive.

The vote came at the end of a meeting called to discuss another matter in executive session, said Council President Mark Jones. The council decided during the session to vote on providing the property for the school, giving opponents of the decision no notice that it would consider the issue. Some residents have voiced opposition to the plan the council made possible Wednesday.

"This was in no way to circumvent the public," Jones said. "It's something we felt like we needed to move on."

Four of five council members attended the meeting, and one, Truman Norred, voted against giving the mayor the authority to transfer the land to the board of education. He said he shares the views of many who oppose moving the school from the current Kitty Stone Elementary School campus at the corner of Spring and Francis streets.

"I still think Kitty Stone is the best site for the school," Norred said. "I think the empty building is going to create problems for the east side of the town if left vacant for any length of time."

The measure passed Wednesday gives the mayor the authority to negotiate the transfer of 20 acres of land near George Douthit Drive to the school board. It does not state whether the land will be donated or sold to the schools. City and schools officials have described the transfer in the past as a donation.

Norred also said that he thinks moving the school to the new site, near George Douthit Drive behind Walmart and adjacent to Jacksonville High School, will create traffic problems on the south side of town. He said he is also bothered that there is not already a plan to reuse the Kitty Stone campus, which will likely be vacated when the new elementary school is complete in about two years.

He said he also worries that having a vacant building on the west side of town will attract criminal activity that will be bad for the neighborhoods that surround it.

Some residents who have spoken out against moving the elementary school published an advertisement in The Jacksonville News this week encouraging residents to attend Monday’s planned council meeting to discuss the matter.

“It’s your last chance to stop this move!” the advertisement reads.

‘Pretty sneaky’

Jacksonville resident Sandra Kelly regularly attends council meetings and she opposes the decision to move the school. Kelly said she was surprised the council voted on the matter Wednesday. She said she thinks the council should have waited until its regularly scheduled Monday meeting to vote on the property.

“I thought it was pretty sneaky,” she said. “They knew that people were not happy with this and, to me, it seemed like this was an underhanded thing.”

Former Jacksonville school board member Phillip Pearson said he was surprised the council acted on the matter at a called meeting, but thinks the city can thrive no matter the location of its elementary school.

“There is no doubt that they offended people, and I think how they handled it is wrong” Pearson said. “I was as surprised as any.”

Some residents have asked the council to withhold the property from the school district to keep educators from building a new school away from the center of town.

Jacksonville schools Superintendent Jon Paul Campbell said he is happy with the council's decision, but he did not expect the body to vote on the matter until March.

"I just got word about it 10 minutes ago," he said in a phone interview at about 2 p.m. "I'm excited that they moved forward with it. I really wasn't expecting this."

Early Wednesday before the called meeting, the council received the board's formal request for the land. The city was waiting until it received the letter to vote on the matter.

Jones said the timing of the letter was one of the main reasons the council decided to vote on the matter Wednesday.

"At our next meeting, we've got two council members that are going to be absent so that would put us back a whole two weeks," Jones said. "It was just a general consensus ... I know it's going to look bad and I'll take the heat for that, but it was not anything planned to circumvent."

Jones said he sees no practical reason to rebuild the elementary school at the Kitty Stone campus, but he does value the sentimental reasons some people want the school to remain where it is.

He said it makes more financial sense to build the new school on the undeveloped property on George Douthit Drive. To build the school in its current location, officials said they would have to spend about $250,000 of their $12.6 million project budget for portable temporary classrooms.

The school’s also said the Kitty Stone School campus is one acre too small for the size campus needed to house 800 students.

Councilwoman Sandra Sudduth said she would have liked the school to be built at the Kitty Stone campus, but she voted in favor of allowing the mayor to negotiate the move in deference to the schools. In January after several months of public discussion on the matter, the school board voted to build new elementary school near George Douthit Drive.

Safety complex firm dismissed

In other business, the city decided to end its contract with a firm hired to design a planned municipal and court complex. To date, Architects Design Group has been paid about $500,000 of $14 million the city has for the project.

Architects Design Group has drawn designs for the project, and on two occasions its designs for the project were estimated to cost well more than the amount of money the city has to spend on the project.

"We just reached a point to where our project just kept snowballing and we weren't getting the design at the price that we wanted," Jones said "We attempted several modifications, and the most recent one came back with a figure that we were totally not expecting."

Jones said the council will hire another architect and proceed with the project.

Staff writer Laura Gaddy: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.

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