A new $6 million expansion is planned for Central High in Phenix City. Here are the details.

Community leaders unveil $4 million expansion at Central High School

School district leaders, faculty and students gathered Tuesday on the artificial turf in the $4 million, 34,000-square-foot building off Dobbs Drive for an official ribbon-cutting ceremony, after which visitors toured the facility.
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School district leaders, faculty and students gathered Tuesday on the artificial turf in the $4 million, 34,000-square-foot building off Dobbs Drive for an official ribbon-cutting ceremony, after which visitors toured the facility.

Enrollment growth in Phenix City Schools has sparked a plan to build another facility.

The administration is waiting on architectural renderings and state approval for a project that would result in a 30,000-square-foot, two-story building with 18 classrooms and two labs in the space behind the softball field’s home plate on the campus shared by Central High School and Central Freshman Academy.

The facility, an estimated $6 million project, would have classes for business, computer science, health services, engineering and television production. The building would also include a new concession stand, press box and restrooms for the softball field.

PCS Superintendent Randy Wilkes presented the proposal for the Career and Technical Education Annex to the school board on June 27. The board approved it with a 4-1-2 vote. Board president Mesha Patrick, vice president the Rev. Brady Baird, Samuel Estrada and Todd Stanfill voted yes. Will Lawrence voted no. Patricia Alexander and Fran Ellis abstained.

Wilkes said he hopes construction would start this fall and the building would open in January 2021.

The rationale for the proposal is based on the school system’s recent enrollment growth and projections from Atlanta-based demographer Steve Salmon, who provided estimates for the next 10 years.

“We’re not looking for a Band-Aid approach,” Wilkes said. “That’s why I brought Steve in, to give us an analysis of everything.”

Phenix City’s population increased by 9 percent since 2010, from 32,822 to 36,219 in 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

PCS enrollment also has grown recently, but at a slower pace:

  • Enrollment grew by 1.6% over the last five years, from 6,829 in 2014-15 to 6,937 in 2018-19.
  • Enrollment is projected to grow by about 2% over the next 10 years, from 7,000 expected in 2019-20 to 7,140 by 2028-29.

Wilkes said the report comprises numbers from “a very conservative model” from the enrollment analysis. But the more significant factor for school facility planning is where that growth is happening and will happen.

“We have a wave and a bubble,” Wilkes said.

It’s now in the middle grades — and it’s headed for the high school.

“Certainly the implementation of more STEM in the sixth and seventh grades back five years ago has paid tremendous dividends,” Wilkes said. “… It’s kept kids from leaving the school district.”

While K-5 enrollment is projected to be relatively flat, grades 6-7 enrollment has increased by 21 percent the past three school years. As a result, the school system used its maintenance department to reconfigure space at Phenix City Intermediate School (grades 6-7) and South Girard School (grades 8) to add two classrooms at both schools.

But the high school needs a more extensive solution, Wilkes said.

While enrollment growth in the middle grades has reached its peak for the next 10 years, according to the report, grades 9-12 are climbing.

Central Freshman Academy (grade 9) and Central High School (grades 10-12) have a combined enrollment of approximately 1,700. It’s estimated to increase by 15%, to about 2,000 students, by 2022-23 and would likely remain there by 2028-29.

“That’s 300 big bodies that we can’t accommodate now,” Wilkes said. “… Because of that bubble, you can see a relatively sharp increase after next year, then a slow and steady growth.”

CHS is at 97% capacity, and CFA is at 112%. Some CFA teachers will have to give up their planning period and there will be some larger classes this school year, Wilkes said. That’s because state funding for teacher units lags behind actual enrollment by a year.

“Anybody that sees these numbers today,” he said, “there’s gotta be something that’s going to give.”

In January 2017, a $4 million expansion facility opened at Central. The 34,000-square-foot building comprises an artificial turf field, two classrooms with 77 desks each, 155 varsity football lockers, 15 coaches offices, 16 stations for weight training with 5.5 tons of weights, batting cages, mats, and meeting and storage rooms.

That project was funded mostly through a bond issue, but Friends of Phenix City Schools contributed more than $870,000 in private donations, Wilkes said then. Wednesday, he said no Friends funds are included in this proposal.

Wilkes expects to have $1.5 million in local public funds available for the project, reducing the amount needed from a bond issue to about $4.5 million.

“Right now, the rates are 3.2 (percent) or so on a 30-year note,” he said. “You don’t know what the economy will be (when the bond is issued), . . . but I don’t think the loan payments would be anything over $300,000 annually. I think that’s very doable.”

If the state approves the plan, Wilkes said, he estimates the request for the board to approve a bond issue would be made at the September meeting and the construction bid process could be in October.

The Ledger-Enquirer called the board members who didn’t vote for the superintendent’s recommendation to give them a chance to explain their reasoning.

“I just want to know more information about the building,” Alexander said Wednesday.

Alexander declined to be specific. “I ask my questions to Mr. Wilkes,” she said.

Ellis mentioned several concerns she has about the proposal. The selected site has inadequate soil for construction, not enough space for additional parking and no covered walkways for students who would go between the proposed building and CHS and CFA, she said.

Lawrence didn’t return the voicemail left for him before this story’s deadline.

Ledger-Enquirer staff writer Mark Rice covers education and other issues related to youth. He also writes feature stories about any compelling topic. He has been reporting in Columbus and the Chattahoochee Valley for more than a quarter-century. He welcomes your local news tips and questions.