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Running Out of Room: School District Plans for New High School

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Well before the start of a new school year Wednesday, Henry Clay High School was already buzzing with activity. The football team practicing outside, band camp, and freshmen orientation for hundreds of incoming students.Upperclassmen point out where the cafeteria and counseling office are. Sophomore Ashleigh Wallace says new students will also probably have class in an outdoor portable.

“This year I’ll have my health class outside and then my AP World Civ class outside. Kinda make do with what we’ve got.”

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Portable classrooms at Henry Clay High School.

What they’ve got is a lack of space. Social Studies teacher Jody Cabble says the school has gotten creative with classroom layouts.

“We’ve repurposed some rooms. Some offices have become classrooms. We’ve put some rooms together; we’ve cut some big rooms in half, those kinds of things.”

Big Schools

At over 2,300 students, Henry Clay has the largest school population in Fayette County. Superintendent Tom Shelton says that needs to change.

“In my personal opinion, 2,000 students or more is not really beneficial for the learning environment.”

Shelton would like to see the Fayette County high schools with a student population of 1,600-1,800.

With the school district on pace to surpass 40,000 K-12 students very soon, the need for another traditional high school is clear. Shelton says that’s also true at the middle and elementary school levels.

“Although we may have some small capacity available in certain areas, it’s not really where it’s needed, so we’re going to have to look at the middle schools. And then really in the next probably three to five years, we’re going to have to build a total three elementary schools.”

Big Challenge

Building a new school requires overcoming a lot of challenges. Every four years a local planning committee documents the district’s facility needs and the recommendations must be approved by local officials and the state board of education.

Finding the right location is the next hurdle. High schools generally require 50-60 acres of land for not just the main building, but all the surrounding athletic fields.

“We’ve really only seen about two or three different areas that are even possibilities in our community for that to happen. Middle school you’re probably talking 20-30 acres and then elementary school you’re talking 8-10 acres at least,” says Shelton.

In June the school board authorized the purchase of land east of I-75 for a new elementary school. Shelton points out that those negotiations took a long time hammer out, another challenge in the long process of new construction. The superintendent likes the idea of going into an existing neighborhood to build needed schools, rather than having a “build-it-and they’ll-come” mentality.

Officials say the new construction plans or renovation projects currently underway would not be possible without the extra 5 cent property tax rate that local homeowners pay to the school district. It was approved in 2007, allowing FCPS to take on more than $250 million in projects.

“You know this is a great school district, we’ve got great schools and people want to be here. That means we just have more students who we need to make sure we’re meeting their needs,” says Shelton.

In addition to Henry Clay High School, 11 other schools across Lexington use portables to help manage overcrowding. Eight more schools have portables because of renovations.

Work on Fayette County’s four-year facilities plan is currently underway. Shelton thinks a new high school could be ready for students by 2016.

Lexington native Brenna Angel anchored local morning newscasts for WUKY through May 13. She joined the station in March 2010 after previously working for WHAS-AM in Louisville.
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