Brittney Lofthouse – Staff Writer

The state lists the capacity for students at South Macon Elementary at 498, and when the official count was taken after the first 10 days of the semester, South Macon Elementary’s enrollment is at 502 students. During the 2016-17 school year, the elementary school was well over capacity with 532 students enrolled after the 10 day mark, and finished the year out with 540 students.

Even with about 40 fewer students enrolled this school year, Macon County Schools consultant Terry Bell advised the school board last week that something still needs to be done to address the overcrowding. Bell noted that the school needs at least three spaces to take care of the students currently enrolled. Last year, three temporary solutions were put into place to help with the overcrowding problem at the school. Bell said that one of the third grade classrooms is located in the music room displacing the music program which is now housed on carts and wheeled to classrooms. The school also has one exceptional children class that is located in a large storage room and an English as a Second Language class that meets in a space designed for an office.

Bell also said that the school was cited by the fire marshal because one of the school’s exceptional children classrooms has been utilizing a divider to create two classrooms. The divider violates the fire code because there is only one egress from one side, and the fire marshal wants the partition taken down, but then the school would lose another classroom.

Macon County Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin said that the district is monitoring the overcrowding issue and at the request of county leaders, submitted expansion plans at South Macon Elementary to County Manager Derek Roland as part of the district’s long-range plans.

The school is currently over capacity, and Dr. Baldwin said that is likely to only get worse based on pending state legislation. Last year, state mandated class changes were put on hold for two years to allow schools time to plan and better address the issue. While the state wants to reduce the student-to-teacher ratio and decrease class sizes, most districts don’t have space to put additional teachers or classrooms. According to Dr. Baldwin, if there are no changes to the law before next year, the district will need to add 6.3 teaching positions in grades kindergarten through third, and there are no available classrooms in which to put these classes.

Last year, school officials proposed a $1.6 million expansion to South Macon to add six new classrooms and expand the school’s cafeteria. South Macon’s cafeteria also provides all the food for students at Union Academy and is often stretched too thin to meet the demand.

The expansion would include three new general education classrooms and three exceptional children classrooms. The three general education classrooms would address the overcrowding at South Macon with room for future growth.

Last year, school leaders proposed moving all exceptional children classes with students which require a self-contained environment for 60 percent or more of the school day to South Macon Elementary and the new classrooms, which would free up space at the other schools in the district, which are also nearing capacity. Housing those students in one school would combine district resources, while allowing for more spaces at other elementary schools.

The overcrowding and the need for expanding South Macon have been the subject of many discussions among school board members and at facility maintenance meetings with the county manager and county commissioners. According to Dr. Baldwin an expansion at South Macon would address the district’s overcrowding for the next five to seven years.

Commissioner Gary Shields attended the school board meeting and noted that with the school’s long-range plan complete, he would like to schedule a joint facilities review committee meeting, which is comprised of members of the school board and county commissioners, to discuss the next step and what is best for the district.