At the September 26 Clarke County Board of Education meeting, the board discussed the possibility of purchasing property at 394 South Milledge Avenue for district offices and a new meeting space for the board.
The meeting started out with Superintendent Dr. Demond Means proposing to “discuss the property on South Milledge” instead of voting on the purchasing of the property.
Prior to the meeting, the board had approved the purchase contract for the South Milledge property, and they have until October 16 to decide whether to move forward with the purchase and renovations or to cancel the contract.
The purchase and renovation of South Milledge would come to $11 million, including $6.7 million for the purchase, and $4.3 million for renovation. The purchase would include 115 marked parking spaces and 37,985 square feet and potential occupancy by January 2020. The location is easily accessible and on bus routes.
Moving the district offices would open up more space for the growing Athens Community Career Academy which has 305 students enrolled this year.
If approved, this project would be funded via SPLOST 5 projects along with the West Broad Early Learning Center, updating high school athletic fields and tracks, and additions to Chase Street Elementary and Gaines Elementary. The grand total for all these projects would be $32 million. Clarke Middle, originally included in SPLOST 5 projects, would be moved to SPLOST 6, which has yet to be approved.
The board was divided about the benefits of moving their offices to 394 South Milledge. Charles Worthy (District 6) praised the property as prime real estate, while Kara Dyckman (District 5) was concerned about the location being too expensive compared to what had originally been budgeted.
“I get stuck on the central location part. I understand the bus line part, I think that’s important, but I don’t know that I feel that the district office has to be in a truly central location. The central locations in Athens are the most expensive locations in Athens,” Dyckman said.
Dyckman discussed how the expenses for the property have risen since the last time she looked at them.
“I do think that we need a district office in town that serves the functions that the district office needs, but I don’t feel that we need to spend $11 million to do it. It seems like a huge amount of money to me, to spend on something . . . that doesn’t house children. At first, when we were talking about it, we were talking between $6 and 6.5 million. Now we’re talking about $11 million, and that is almost double.”
Means says that the purchase wasn’t about the central location but about being on the bus line and accessible for the community. He said throughout the search for a new space, this one met district needs the best.
“I think it’s just important for the district to know that the district has been focused on trying to find a permanent district office since early 2018. We have looked at many different locations throughout this community, branching from the old former Hobby Lobby facility, to looking at a space in the Georgia Square Mall. We have been looking throughout the community for a property that could meet the needs of our district office. We’re not just scuffling across this district property as the latest and greatest, we’ve been on a very diligent search for a district office for a long time now. And we believe that the property of 394 South Milledge does meet our needs for district offices,” Means said.
John Knox (District 8) raised concerns about purchasing the property from real estate agent Sarah Ellis, a previous vice president of the board.
“Spending $6.7 million of taxpayers’ money on a pricey property for district offices, with that money ending up in the hands of pretty old Athens property owners—that’s not equity work. That’s business as usual. That’s a transfer of money from poor people of color to rich white people, the way it’s been done in Athens and elsewhere around our nation for centuries. That’s what has to stop, now, if we are going to do the real, hard work of equity,” Knox stated at the board meeting and in his response that he shared online.
The board will meet on October 3 to vote on their decision for what to do with South Milledge.
Community Member Shelia Neely expressed her concern for not having space for the expanding Career Academy. “My feeling is that if it’s going to cause a distinction or a disturbance between the board and the community then we can just wait for the property. And it’s sad to see that they’re not looking at we need that space for these students, and all the students that we could serve, and that we’re not able to serve because we don’t have the space.”
Board’s response to AdvancED complaint
The board also discussed retaining legal counsel to advise them on their response to the AdvancED complaint. Means originally opposed letting the board hire an attorney to represent them, but after discussion, the board voted 8-1 (Worthy opposed) in favor of hiring an attorney.
The final item on the agenda was to decide whether the board would draft their own response to the complaint. There was controversy as to whether they should wait for the legal counsel to help them on their response, or to do so on their own. The board voted 6-2 (Linda Davis and Charles Worthy opposed, Frances Berry was absent) in favor of drafting their response to the complaint on their own.