Earlier this month, Forsyth County Schools closed on a deal to buy more than 45 acres of land in northwest Forsyth, the future home of the systems 11th, yet unnamed middle school.
School officials say that this new school will be instrumental in relieving pressure from Vickery Creek, Liberty and Otwell middle schools and will provide a base for future growth that is expected in west Forsyth.
According to documents provided by the school system, the property that is expected to house Middle School 11 is located in District 1 on the west side of Hyde Road, off of Post and Drew Campground roads.
Documents state that the 45.466 acres of land were purchased from five sellers for a total of $3,826,675, approximately $84,165 per acre.
But in the time since the location of Middle School 11 was officially announced and approved by the Forsyth County Board of Education in October, a wide variety of questions and concerns have been raised by local Hyde Road residents as to the site’s viability and potential concerns that are posed by its construction.
For Jeff Lake, a west Forsyth resident, landowner of property adjoining the Middle School 11 property, and outspoken opponent of the proposed school, issues with the site are split between its cost, safety concerns and environmental issues for land surrounding the proposed school property.
For Rosewood Lake Subdivision residents TJ and Jean Vogt, the school’s keystone issue is its placement; they say the area, with its small two-lane Hyde Road, isn’t fit to be a school location.
But the issue that permeated the majority of conversations that the FCN had with local residents about this new school was a general unfamiliarity with the process of building a school or other government buildings. Residents who spoke with the FCN were unaware what was the standard, what they could expect from the process or how they could get involved.
So how does a school get built? What lets the county know it needs a new school? How do they find a location and ensuring that it gets built in the right way, for the right price?
These are all valid questions, rarely talked about and often taken for granted in a county that is always growing and always building schools.
To get a complete picture of the process of how schools are built in Forsyth County and talk about the issues surrounding Middle School 11, the FCN sat down with Forsyth County Schools Director of Planning Tim Amerson.
How do we know we need a school?
According to Amerson, to build a school, you must first build a spreadsheet — and not just any spreadsheet, but a thorough, chronological accounting of every school, every classroom and every student that a county has.
From his office at the Forsyth County Board of Education, Amerson can look at his database and assess the need in the community for a new school by looking at the schools of a particular area and looking at how many schools are over capacity and by how much.
Amerson said that by looking at how over-capacity schools are and growth projections from the Georgia Department of Education, he can basically predict where they will be able to build and populate a school, while taking pressure off of other schools in the system.
“We work with their enrollment calculations vs. our enrollment calculations to say, ‘These are the schools that are growing, these are the schools that will be going over capacity and could they feed into a future school,’” Amerson said.
In the case of Middle School 11, Amerson said that they will relieve roughly 33 classrooms of students from Vickery Creek, Liberty and Otwell.
He said that whereas the south end of the county was previously known as the epicenter of growth for the county, that growth has begun to shift north and west.
Once they know they need a school in a particular area, Amerson starts looking for property using a geographic data tool, real-estate property records in that area and triangulates between nearby schools to try and take the pressure off of as many schools as possible.
“I really try to put it near the larger subdivisions and things that are going to feed into it, I like to be close to the big multi-lane roads, but I don’t like to be on state highways,” Amerson said.
Amerson said that Denmark High School is the district’s example of a perfect school property: it was bought in one piece, was relatively level and had the exact right situation in terms of roads and major intersections. But even if a property isn’t as perfect as Denmark was in Amerson’s eyes, they can nearly always make the right piece of property work out.
Each time they relieve pressure at a school, Amerson said that they are really just giving that school room to keep growing again.
“Our eye is drawn to large single tract properties where we can get a big piece of property at one time,” Amerson said.
Amerson said that sometimes this process can take years, as they find exactly the right property to fit their needs, negotiate with sellers and complete a battery of tests as is required by the Georgia Department of Education.
What happens when we find a potential site?
With Middle School 11, Amerson said that the school system has been searching for the right property for over two years. In that time, he said that they examined five other viable options in the west Forsyth area, but had to discard each for their pricing, availability and other issues with the owners.
He said that they even hired a private investigator to track a property owner down in north Georgia, but eventually dropped the property as an option after communication with the owner broke down.
At the same time, Forsyth County Schools Director of Communications Jennifer Caracciolo said that they are competing with developers for the land, so they have to keep their negotiations as quiet as possible to avoid huge spikes in the land’s price.
But before they can close on any property, Amerson said that they have to subject the land to a variety of different tests and risk assessments that take into account everything from how buses will be turning in and out of the school to the environmental factors of what has been left on the property by previous owners.
As is standard, he said that for Middle School 11 they conducted a floodplain determination, an environmental site assessment, a traffic study, a subsurface exploration and geotechnical engineering evaluation and other surveys.
He said that in the past, at schools like West Forsyth and Lambert high schools, they have found risk factors like old cars buried under the ground, lead-filled dirt mounds that were used for years as muzzle loading rifle targets and aging junkyards on adjoining properties, all with their own environmental hazards, and all requiring more serious environment site basements.
But for the Hyde Road property, Amerson said that everything checked out smoothly and was signed off by the Georgia DOE in late October.
In accordance with that approval, on Dec. 6, the school system closed on the Hyde Road properties.
Unlike another recent land purchase made by the school system, the property that Denmark is built on, with the Hyde Road property Amerson and his team had to close on five different properties to get the acreage they need for Middle School 11 – one 20-acre horse farm and four smaller properties.
How can you get involved?
Now that they own the property on Hyde Road, Amerson said that they can refine how the school will fit on the site, dealing with issues like driveway access and sewer lines. Even though they don’t have to go through the zoning process, Amerson said that they will have to work up a detailed plan of the site to present to the county and the community for their thoughts on different areas of the site.
“We still go through what is called a sketch plat; it’s kind of like zoning, but it says, ‘We’re going to do school construction on agricultural property,’” he said. “Because what we are building is not what would expect for an agricultural use, you do a sketch plat.”
He said that their plan for the site will go through the normal round of public participation meetings. Local residents and homeowners’ associations in the surrounding area will be notified of the future construction and signs will be posted in the surrounding areas letting people know about upcoming town hall meetings.
Though there is no official date set for those public participation meetings, Amerson said they will probably take place at West Forsyth High School and school system staff will be readily available to answer any public questions and concerns about the site.
To residents who at this point feel left out in the dark by the school system with the selection of Hyde Road, Amerson said that, yes, the process of communication probably could be improved, but they are walking a very fine line between being transparent to the public and keeping land negotiations secret.
“We get the sense from people that because we are the school system, we have much deeper pockets, but we don’t have deep pockets, and we can’t compete with developers,” Amerson said. “I’m not sure how we can go out there and advertise, ‘This is the future home of a school site,’ until we get to the point of closing.”
Caracciolo said that unlike those private developers, she and Amerson are much more open to having a conversation with taxpayers, since they are focused on coming into the community to make a lasting positive impact.
“We are their permanent neighbor,” Caracciolo said. “We are here to operate within the community. We’re not here to build a development, sell lots and move.”
Both said that their phone lines and email are readily available to any members of the public who want to discuss issues with them.
After all public comments have been gathered and recorded about the school, Amerson said that the plans will be handed off to the Forsyth County board of commissioners.
From there, they move into the process of constructing the school, which Amerson said takes roughly 18 months.
He said that Middle School 11 will be an alternate of their updated middle school design, with 89 classrooms and a capacity for 1,500 students.
Amerson said that they are already in the process of planning the site, with hopes of breaking ground in October 2019 and opening for business in August 2021.