The recent tassel turning of 2021 graduates marked more than this year’s senior class concluding grade school. It marked the end of a school year that tested a county, state and country.

This time last year, school leaders looked toward the fall with huge uncertainties.

Schools had been shut down for the final two months of the 2019-20 year. And as the summer days sped by toward the 2020-21 school year, the local school board pondered in-person safety measures for students and staff in the fall. Meanwhile, the state cut school budgets, and systems like Madison County faced tough personnel choices. Online services also had to be established quickly with new devices for all students, along with a new online system, Canvas.

The challenges were steep.

But planning for the 2021-22 year is less intense.

Covid cases are down. School finances didn’t take as severe a hit as expected. County sales tax collections are strong. And school planning has returned more to the nuts and bolts of regular issues than in bracing for a great unknown.

Superintendent Michael Williams looks toward the upcoming school year with optimism, saying that he can definitely breathe easier with 2020-21 in the books. He’s been praiseworthy of students, staff, parents and the community for their work in getting through a tough school year.

Now, in a big-picture sense, there’s a more familiar “unknown” that hangs over school leaders’ heads: growth. How fast will Madison County grow, and how will county local schools prepare for it?

“We’re most certainly concerned about growth,” said Williams. “If you look at enrollment numbers, we’ve been OK this year and maybe even a little less (stressed facility-wise) than the previous year because of covid and some people didn’t send their kids back to school in person. But as we start the new school year, it will be important for us to look at the ending number of students for this year and compare that to the first two weeks of school in August. From that point we’re going to have to make some decisions on facilities.”

Williams said the county high school and middle school are in good shape in terms of capacity, but he said the elementary schools could be more affected by growth. He noted that Ila and Comer elementary schools are both nearing capacity.

“There are a few classrooms here and there (at Ila and Comer) that you could make a homeroom class, but you still need those resource rooms,” he said. “You still need those pull-out rooms for students and teachers.”

The Colbert and Hull areas are growing quickly and administrators at those schools have “gotten a count of classrooms that should be available should they need that,” he said.

Williams said there’s discussion of whether it would be a better plan to add on to Ila or construct a new school.

“Ila is our oldest school; do you try to build a new school or add on?” he said. “The infrastructure is old.”

School construction and expansion are typically funded with sales tax money. And Madison County is a tax poor county. There’s not a large commercial base to fund school services like in more developed counties. But sales tax collections are up. Madison County schools received $260,000 in sales tax funds last month, an all-time high. The school system will ask voters to renew the one-cent Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (E-SPLOST) in March. That tax will help the system conclude the debt payments for the high school expansion. Williams said that the system allocates $180,000 per month to cover the debt costs. The additional money brought in by the tax can fund other projects. For instance, sales tax money is being used to construct a new bus shop to replace the 65-year-old current facility (see related story).

Williams said he’d like to see the school system have a fine arts facility and an ag center, but he said the first priority is to make sure the school facilities are sufficient to handle growth.

“First, we have to take care of the growth,” he said. “We have to plan for the growth. I’ve had people from Virginia call and say they’re buying a house want to enroll their kid. People near me just bought from California. We’re seeing a lot of people wanting to move here and enroll their kid. We just need to continue to prepare for that.”

While preparing for growth is a focus, Madison County schools are also looking at the best way to spend $8.8 million in federal funds approved through the American Rescue Plan. Those funds are intended to help schools address learning loss due to the pandemic. And Williams said that positions that were left unfilled last year are being filled. The elementary schools will also each have an additional staff member. There will be additional summer school services.

“We will have a version of summer school this year, but not as in depth as next year,” he said. “You need to plan a little bit, and I think people just need that break right now. I think students and parents and staff need that break.”

Williams added that new high school principal Jamie Dixon wants to implement Saturday school for those needing remediation.

The federal funds could help with technology costs. Madison County implemented the “one-to-one” program this past year, which put a Chromebook with every student.

“Technology is ever expanding and it’s not going to stop, and those costs are not going to slow down,” he said. “At some point those Chromebooks will die, crash, and you have to continually have a rotation plan and funds available for that.”

Williams said the schools could also use federal money to help the county government implement countywide broadband services, if such a project is approved.

The county school board is not planning a tax rate increase this year. The millage rate has been held steady for years at 16.99 mills. But property values are significantly up in the current sellers’ market, though no overall digest figure (total county property value) is yet available. Williams doesn’t rule out the possibility of a tax rollback.

“We won’t raise the millage rate,” he said. “If there’s something that looks like we can roll it back a little bit, we’ll consider that, because I know everybody’s assessed values have gone up and people assume that we’re raising the millage rate sometimes, and we’re not. It’s just the assessed value is going up.”

The superintendent said the state government has been gradually shifting funding responsibilities more to the county system. He noted that Madison County school funding has traditionally been 75 percent state allocated. But that percentage is now 69.8 percent.

“When you get less state funding, that puts more ownership on local property owners,” he said. “That trend needs to reverse and go back toward 75 percent and less on property owners.”

The summer is always a time for school planning and maintenance projects. And Williams said there are some projects being handled this summer that were put off last year.

“We didn’t do a lot of projects last year, maintenance projects or things we normally try to get accomplished in the summer, whether it’s painting or some carpeting,” he said.

He noted that there are drainage issues at Ila that need to be addressed and a sewer system issue at Comer that must be remedied. He said a covered-walkway will be added at Colbert Elementary School.

“Those kids have to get out in the morning,” said Williams. “And those rainy mornings, they don’t have any cover. And they’ve been asking for that.”

One noteworthy change at the high school next year will be the start of a Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) program. The county school board has hired a senior Army instructor and an Army instructor to oversee that program. The school board planned to implement a JROTC program at the high school and designated space for the program when the school was expanded. Spanish classes have been held in the bottom floor space where JROTC will be. And those classes will be relocated. Williams said he expects the JROTC program will take a little time to build, but he said he expects it to be successful. Williams said the goal is to have at least 10 percent of the high school population, or about 150 students, join JROTC.

“Once the instructors get here and the instructors start building that relationship with students and the other students start seeing the program and what it’s offering, that’s when it really takes off,” he said. “It may be slow in the beginning but once you can see it, then it really takes off. I’ve never seen a JROTC program not succeed.

I think it will here as well. I’m excited about it. I think it will benefit our students.”

Madison County students will return to class Aug. 6.

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