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Education tax would provide for school expansions

WINDER - Barrow County is educating more than 10,000 students. In a decade, the schools' superintendent expects that number to be doubled - or higher.

"We're just growing," Superintendent Ron Saunders said. "We've got to be prepared to house those students."

The school system is asking voters to pass a penny sales tax on March 21 to fund the expansion of five schools, renovations at others and creation of a performing arts facility, among other projects. One of the biggest projects the district will take on if the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax passes will be renovations to Winder-Barrow High School.

The middle of the school will be torn down, Saunders said, and new classrooms will be built, increasing the school's capacity from 1,500 students to 1,800. The school's gymnasium will also be demolished and replaced.

Saunders said some residents were opposed to the plan to rebuild the gym. However, he said, it was not structurally sound, and the price difference between renovating the facility and rebuilding it was $1 million.

The gym has a crack in the wall, he said, and has already lasted 30 years. New construction will allow it to last longer than a renovation would.

"If we do it right, it will save us another 30 years," he said.

In addition to sports, the gym will also be used for concerts and band, Saunders said.

Winder-Barrow High School will need about 25 portable classrooms while construction takes place. Classrooms will also be added to Apalachee High School - so 1,800 students will fit there - and Auburn, Statham and Holsenbeck elementary schools, increasing their capacity to 900 students from about 500.

Saunders expected the tax, which was first passed a decade ago, would bring the school system about $70 million over the next five years. Other projects that would be funded if money is available include building a new Winder-Barrow Middle School; renovating Russell Middle School; putting sewer in Kennedy, Bramlett and Bethlehem elementary schools and Westside Middle School; and buying property for more schools as growth continues.

Currently, the tax provides the school system about $700,000 a month. Early voting begins this week.

The projects are a way to bring all of the schools up to speed, Saunders said. The last vote passed five years ago with 93 percent approval.

"I think they see our need," Saunders said. "There's such a great need, we're growing by leaps and bounds. ...We don't want facilities to be an issue. If a roof is leaking, a teacher has a hard time teaching."