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Land purchases approved for new schools

LAWRENCEVILLE - The Gwinnett County Board of Education has officially allocated funding for the purchase of 24 pieces of land on which to build new schools.

As part of the next phase of its building program, the school system plans to add 35 or more new schools by 2012. The school board has so far approved property acquisitions totaling $117.4 million for the sites of two dozen of them.

The new schools will be part of the long-term effort for the school system to curb overcrowding and accommodate the rapidly growing enrollment in Gwinnett public schools. By 2011, there will be an estimated 175,000 students in the school system, up by more than 30,000 from this year.

Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks outlined "The Plan" Tuesday during the first area board meeting at North Gwinnett High School. It will include the construction of five new high schools, increasing the total number of clusters in Gwinnett County to 20. A sixth new high school will be a charter school specializing in math, science and technology education.

The school board also discussed the next phase of its construction plan with the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners at their annual joint meeting on Thursday.

"Finding school sites is getting harder every day," said Jim Steele, the school system's chief operations officer. "A few years ago, we were panicked because we had to stay out of the real estate because the funds weren't coming in."

Funding for the land purchases comes largely from the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, which Wilbanks said he would like to see extended when it is on the ballot this November. As part of its second phase of construction, which ends in 2007, the school system built 18 new schools over two years. There were also additions built for 17 existing Gwinnett schools.

The redistricting process will begin in early 2007 to account for the new clusters. At the monthly board meeting, Wilbanks said any major redistricting prior to that would be premature.

"When we begin that process, we will probably look at several clusters, by virtue that we will need to, because a new cluster will impact at least two clusters for the most part," Wilbanks said.

Wilbanks discusses long-range

plans at work session

During the work session preceding the board meeting, Wilbanks presented the school system's long-range plans. He reviewed how some priorities had changed for the school district over the past 10 years, as its diversity and enrollment increased dramatically.

"What I think is so meaningful is we still believe that we need to have high standards of achievement. Probably the biggest disservice we can do for children of any race or background is to assume that they can't learn," Wilbanks said.

Wilbanks outlined his staff's strategic objectives for the board, which include optimizing student achievement through financial responsibility; meeting the changing demand for essential information and technology; applying continuous quality improvement strategies; ensuring safety for students and staff; and hiring and retaining excellent employees at all levels.