Heavy rain didn't deter a large crowd from coming to Fulton Public Schools' Thursday night community forum.
With approximately 75 members of the community in attendance at McIntire Elementary and at least 40 watching and participating through Facebook Live, the opinions of the public were on full display. Architects Grant Thome and Justin Durham from Hollis + Miller addressed the room with options for the next step in the district's ongoing strategic plan.
"We were thrilled with the turnout, and I was super thrilled with the group with the questions they asked the architects," said Cowherd, who provided the Facebook Live figures.
The primary issue at hand is spacing issues throughout the FPS elementary schools. The architects presented the room with two options to address these issues that could become realities pending approval of an April 2020 bond issue.
Durham said many of the district's average class sizes for K-5 are beginning to creep up towards DESE's "standard" class size rather than their "desirable standard." For example, the average class size for kindergartners in the district stands at 22. DESE's standard class size is 25, but their "desirable standard" is 17.
"With our current enrollment at each location by grade, we currently have zero classrooms available. That means every classroom we have in the district, K-5, is being used," Durham said.
The first option presented was the possibility of the district purchasing Rice Hall and transforming it into a new elementary school. Durham said Rice Hall already has ample existing classroom space, a gym and a cafeteria.
However, Rice Hall comes with a number of unknowns.
"We don't know when the state is going to sell it nor how much it might cost," Durham said, describing Rice Hall as the district's "wild card plan."
The second option presented was building a kindergarten center on the property of the Fulton Early Childhood Center. This center would have 12 classrooms, a cafeteria/gym/play area and kitchen. Having a kindergarten center would free up two classrooms at Bartley Elementary, four classrooms at Bush Elementary and three at McIntire — while still leaving two spare classrooms at the kindergarten center.
"I think creating space with the kindergarten center is very viable. It would clear up space at all of our elementary schools," Cowherd said.
Cowherd's biggest takeaway from the evening was everyone in the room seemed to grasp the concept of classroom sizes and the need for space. Throughout the evening, district residents, parents and employees raised a number of questions, comments and concerns.
"I just want to make sure the bond issue is used not only for here right now but also for the future of the district and that we use forward thinking on this," said Jason Ballard, who is a parent within the district as well as an employee.
Ballard felt the forum went swimmingly and was pleased Hollis + Miller had systematic solutions in place to address these issues. Members of the public were also concerned with the kindergarten center adding time to bus routes, the new center's staffing issue, fine arts classrooms throughout the district and more.
"I was very impressed with not just the emotional pleas but the realistic questions about class size and what's best for the future of the district," Cowherd said.
FPS Board of Education member Leah Baker felt this community forum will give the board clear feedback as to what the community wants to do next. Baker and Cowherd said the board's next step would be to begin finalizing the language for the April 2020 bond issue. Cowherd hopes to have the language finalized by November or December, ahead of the late January 2020 deadline.
"We'll need to narrow it down into an actual plan, getting an idea of what the cost will be so that we can see what all we'll be able to accomplish in this next step," Baker said.
Thome and Durham said the master list of everything the district hopes to accomplish in the coming years won't be able to be addressed through this initial bond issue. However, they stated everything on that list would be accomplished eventually — as of now, it's just a matter of priority, and student rooms and educational experience top the list.
The Facebook Live stream of the community forum will be available on FPS page for the next week, Cowherd said.