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### Decline of Formerly Prestigious Educational Institutions

Posted March 5, 2024 | By Caroline Brauchler / [email protected]

Video by Bruce Ackerman / [email protected]

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The aviation program at Sparr Elementary stands as the school’s flagship initiative, an innovative endeavor poised to elevate the school to magnet status in the coming year. However, constrained by limited space within the aging school premises, the program currently occupies a cramped room that serves a dual purpose as a storage facility.

To underscore the pressing need for financial assistance across numerous schools in the district, Marion County Public Schools staff organized tours of nine schools last week, including Sparr Elementary. Situated in the rural northern region of the county, Sparr Elementary caters to students from pre-K through fifth grade.

Barbara Dobbins, the executive director of Operations and Emergency Management, expressed uncertainty regarding the feasibility of formulating a concrete plan to aid Sparr Elementary at present. This uncertainty arises due to competing priorities, such as the construction of two new elementary schools in the densely populated southwest area of the county.

In an endeavor to secure funding for capital projects like new school constructions and additional school wings, the school district is exploring the reinstatement of two key funding sources: school impact fees and an increase in the local-option sales tax.

School impact fees, which developers pay as a one-time levy for each new home constructed to mitigate the costs associated with new schools, were recently reinstated by the county commission through an approved ordinance. These fees, tailored to the anticipated student yield from each home type, had been suspended since 2011 in the aftermath of the recession.

Furthermore, the school board has initiated steps to include a proposal on the upcoming general election ballot to raise the local-option sales tax by half a cent, with the aim of generating revenue for new school initiatives.

Despite Sparr Elementary’s establishment in 1964 and its subsequent expansions to accommodate a growing community, Assistant Principal Sarah Schrader highlighted the limitations posed by spatial constraints. The school’s enrollment has surged by 40% over the years, currently totaling 440 students. This growth has necessitated the multifunctional use of most classrooms, rooms, and even closets within the school premises.

For instance, a single room houses supplies for the Future Aviator Academy, the school store, and an administrator’s office. The room’s air-conditioning system, installed in 1992, is well beyond its operational lifespan, frequently malfunctioning and leaving students reliant on fans for cooling.

The Future Aviator Academy program, catering to third through fifth graders, offers hands-on instruction on aerospace engineering and aviation concepts.

The deteriorating infrastructure not only impacts the mechanical systems of the school, such as plumbing, air conditioning, and lighting, but also exerts a detrimental influence on teacher retention, student attendance, and academic performance.

Several classrooms at Sparr lack direct restroom access, with three restrooms shared among five classrooms in one section of the school. One of these restrooms is only accessible through a classroom, leading to disruptions for the affected class during the school day.

The original galvanized cast iron plumbing, running through the school’s structure, is in urgent need of repair.

Shaun Duncan, the Technical Services Supervisor, emphasized the ongoing need for maintenance at Sparr, describing it as a perpetual requirement.

While maintenance and repairs are partially funded through the capital outlay derived from a 1.5 property tax millage rate, these funds cover only about 20% of the maintenance needs, leaving the remaining 80% unaddressed.

Previously, maintenance was supported in part by Public Education Capital Outlay dollars, sourced from taxes generated by landline phones, as explained by MCPS spokesperson Kevin Christian.

Given the challenges posed by aging facilities at Sparr and nearby Anthony Elementary, the school district is exploring the construction of a new school to amalgamate the two elementary schools. This approach is deemed more cost-effective than attempting to rectify existing issues and expand the schools to accommodate the burgeoning student populations.

Across the county, portable classrooms have been deployed to alleviate space constraints, albeit with their own set of challenges.

Dobbins highlighted the drawbacks of portables, noting that approximately 832 are owned by the district, with around 246 utilized for instructional purposes. The absence of water and sewer facilities in many portables necessitates students to traverse to nearby buildings for restroom use during the school day, a journey compounded by inclement weather conditions.

The inadequacy of covered walkways at Sparr and numerous other district schools poses additional challenges.

Superintendent Diane Gullett underscored the imperative of addressing student needs as the foremost priority. With the influx of new residents into Marion County and the promise of continued growth, school district officials are advocating for support from legislators and the community to ensure an optimal learning environment for students.

“Our students deserve better than that,” Gullett emphasized, emphasizing the need to provide conducive learning spaces free from the constraints currently faced by students and faculty alike.

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