Plans are now moving smoothly forward to begin construction on a new Altama Elementary School.
Glynn County Schools recently received approval from the Georgia Department of Education on its site application to build the new school at 6045 Altama Ave. in Brunswick, three-fourths of a mile from the current 53-year-old school building.
The road to this point in the process, though, has been bumpy.
The Glynn County Board of Education and district leaders faced criticism from many community members earlier this year when the school board voted to build the new school on the same 18 acres on which the current school is located, at 5505 Altama Ave.
The property sits adjacent to one of four Superfund sites in Glynn County. Superfund sites are areas that have been contaminated by hazardous waste and ordered by the federal government to be cleaned up or mitigated.
Many voiced concerns that building the new school on that property would lead to future health issues for the school’s occupants.
The school board changed its plans in response and voted in July to build the school at a new site.
“We have worked hard to be transparent and open in finding the best site for this new school,” said Virgil Cole, superintendent of Glynn County Schools, at the meeting July 10. “The question we have continually asked ourselves is where is the best place for this school.”
The year began with a school board meeting at which board members were given a report about the toxaphene levels on the current school site.
The board had asked in 2017 that tests be done on the site to ensure it would be safe for the new school.
Rick Ricci, a senior project geologist for Terracon Consultants, told school board members that testing samples had come back “non-detect” for toxaphene.
Other site options at the time included a site on Habersham Street across from the former Brunswick High School and a site near Ga. Hwy. 99.
By March, the school system had determined that the site was safe for the new school construction. Cole gave a presentation March 27 at Altama Elementary School to parents, school staff and community members that explained the testing that had been done and the reasons for which the school system and the school’s staff felt that the current site was the best option.
“We feel like we have done our due diligence with this and have done a thorough job, and we wouldn’t be going down this road if we didn’t feel that way,” Cole said at the time.
But others at the meeting questioned the safety of this plan, due to the 16.5 acre Hercules 009 Superfund site that sits adjacent to the northern side of the current school property.
The Superfund site was placed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s “National Priorities List” in 1984 because of contaminated groundwater, sludge and soil from industrial operations.
Daniel Parshley, representing the Glynn Environmental Coalition, said at the meeting that the EPA had stated in a 2016 report on the Hercules site that no issues of exposure from the site exist because the adjacent property was not in use.
“I’m not telling you not to build the school,” he said. “I’m not telling you to build the school. I’m only here to provide the information that the EPA provided in their 2016 report.”
The school’s staff, including its principal Michelle Drew, supported the school board’s plan to build on the current site and insisted that the best option was to keep the school in the same area.
After hearing feedback from the community following the presentation, the school board voted unanimously April 10 to begin the site approval process to build the new school on the current school site.
At that meeting, before the vote, Glynn Environmental Coalition’s project manager Rachael Thompson asked the school board to take several actions on the site.
“Keeping in mind that the community has repeatedly asked for a local community school, we believe that additional actions can be taken to diminish the potential human health risks,” she said at the meeting. “However, our initial recommendation would be not to build the school on the current site, which is less than 1,500 feet from the Hercules 009 Superfund site.”
The school board’s next meeting May 8 was standing room only as a number of community members were in attendance to protest the decision to build the new school at the current site.
“The board of education has this amazing opportunity to fix a wrong that should never have happened in the first place,” said Jen Hilburn, the Altamaha Riverkeeper, in an address to the board at the meeting. “Move the children away from toxic pollution. Why is this not obvious?”
School board members defended their decision and insisted that due diligence had been administered to ensure the property’s safety.
“Student safety is our first and foremost concern, and we want students to be safe and in a healthy environment,” school board member Hank Yeargan told The News in May.
The community, though, was adamantly against the plan to build a new school on the current site.
“I think that the community is unified against this,” Glynn County Commissioner Allen Booker told The News in May. “I’ve heard from a cross-section of people, regardless of their party affiliation and regardless of their race. I think that people just in general feel that this is a bad idea.”
The school board listened and found a new site.
The board voted unanimously at a meeting July 10 to authorize school officials to execute a contract to purchase 27.65 acres of land at 6045 Altama Ave. for construction of the new school.
The land purchase contract had several preceding conditions, and the purchase price was not to exceed $1.4 million.
The school board later received approval from Glynn County to use the parcel of land and then applied for state site approval.
Now that the state education department has approved the site, the school system is able to move forward with the purchase of the land. A consultant hired by the school board has delineated the wetlands on the property.
Site work will begin once that delineation has been approved.
When dropped off at preschool, Ryann Hankey rarely turned around to wave goodbye to her mom.
Instead, she’d run off alone into new adventures, ready to attack the day head on.
Hankey, who today is an eighth-grade student at Frederica Academy, has held on to that spirit of independence. She aspires still to embark upon challenges and to grow from the experience.
One of Hankey’s upcoming challenges will be a three-week trip to Bali, Indonesia, this summer. She has been accepted into the Global Leadership Adventures program, sponsored by the Peace Corps. Hankey will work with Bali’s Children’s Education in Action program.
“As a kid, you don’t really see much of the world out there. You kind of just see what your parents have set for you and what your school allows you to see,” Hankey said. “So by going to a place like this, there really isn’t a filter. You kind of see everything how it is.”
Participants in the program teach children at local schools, learn to scuba dive, explore the culture and more. Hankey was inspired to apply for the program by her own desire to travel.
“I’ve always loved to help little kids, and that just seems like a fun experience to go do, just to hang out with the children and teach English,” Hankey said. “I just thought it would be an amazing experience.”
The program’s cost, along with the price of airfare to Bali, isn’t cheap. Hankey applied and won a scholarship. She’s also raised money babysitting, and making and selling crafts.
But to bridge the gap and raise the remaining money needed, she’s set up a GoFundMe page at gofundme.com/ndqkv-global-leadership-trip.
“I just think it’s a really cool experience for any kid my age, just to be able to go out there and not learn through others and just be able to see it for themselves,” she said. “I think it’s just amazing to be able to have that opportunity to do that and just be able to experience that for yourself.”
Hankey’s efforts to not only apply for and earn acceptance to the program but also to raise money for the trip are evidence of her independent attitude, said her mom Catherine Chmelar.
“She’s got a big entrepreneurial spirit, and she just wants to go and experience and see the world, without us painting it for her,” Chmelar said.
Hankey was in fourth grade when she decided she wanted to attend Frederica Academy. Chmelar, a single mother, said she knew she couldn’t afford the school’s tuition. So Hankey applied for the single scholarship offered to rising sixth graders — the Connor Landis Frederica Scholars Award— and won.
“It’s a competitive scholarship,” Chmelar said. “She applied, and she got it. She just makes things happen for herself. It’s just impressive.”
Chmelar hopes that her daughter will gain through this trip a sense of empathy and understanding for the lives of others around the world.
“I just want her to see other people’s stations in life and widen her horizons and really see the world, like she said, with no filter,” Chmelar said. “She gains that larger perspective.”
Hankey has little interest in depending on others to make experiences available to her. She’d rather seek out those opportunities herself and do whatever it takes to achieve them.
“It’s not just going to happen,” she said. “You have to make it happen.”
Continuing to reduce the portion of its water bill based on actual usage is one of many initiatives the Brunswick-Glynn County Joint Water and Sewer Commission intends to pursue in 2019.
The utility commission voted to add a base rate to water and sewer bills earlier this year. Everyone is charged for 1,000 gallons of water usage regardless of how much they actually use, and the charge for the amount of water used was decreased.
Moving forward, the utility is likely to continue increasing the base rate while reducing the cost based on usage.
“That will take a process to evolve. It would shock the system to make it like what we need to, and I don’t know how much we’re going to evolve it this rate period,” said utility commission Chairman Donald Elliot.
Utility Executive Director Jimmy Junkin said maintenance and repair of the water and sewer assets rely mostly on incomes from water and sewer rates.
The amount the utility has to spend on maintaining the system is much more than it receives from the base rate, meaning that if water consumption were to drop quickly, the utility may not receive enough revenue from rates to pay for regular maintenance, much less any costly or emergency repairs, he said.
Roughly 70 percent of the utility’s sewer lines need to be replaced, Elliot said, which puts the utility in a hard spot with decreasing revenue from water and sewer usage.
“Maintenance, repair and rejuvenation of our assets are more of a fixed cost than a volumetric cost,” Elliot said.
With water consumption dropping due to more water-efficient appliances, the utility’s revenue from the consumption-based portion of its bill will also drop unless more people start using the service.
Those on the lower end of the income spectrum were taken into account when establishing the initial base rate, and Elliot said the commission will continue to keep them in mind.
“It’s really hard to do it because those people that use the least amount of water are most affected by a base rate because they have to share more of a burden to maintain the system. That’s why you have to walk it really slow,” Elliot said.
“Any small, incremental moves we can make to shift that direction, even if its tiny, makes us financially more resilient,” Junkin added.
On the other hand, the durability and efficiently of the water and sewer systems will continue to increase as well and at some point will hopefully catch up to increasing efficiency on the consumer’s end.
On the service front, progress has been made on many of the problems Glynn County’s sewer system had at the beginning of the year, Junkin said.
In order to improve the efficiency of the sewer system, the utility has been working on improving and repairing pump stations to their original operational capacity.
Except for a few sewer pump stations serving “fringe” neighborhoods, that’s been accomplished.
“For the most part, we’re there. Everybody is operating with well-designed facilities,” Junkin said.
Another boost to sewer capacity this year came from the first phase of a special-purpose, local-options sales tax project.
“That’s a big capacity improvement, and certainly the next two phases of that SPLOST project are going to provide even more so that if something else crazy goes on in the next 20 years, we’re going to be ready for it,” Junkin said.
In an effort to continue to improve sewer efficiency, the utility will conduct a smoke test on the St. Simons Island system this year, a project that’s been in the works since early 2018.
Inflow and infiltration had been a common topic at utility commission meetings, especially concerning St. Simons Island.
Inflow refers to water flowing to the underground system from the surface, usually through manholes, while infiltration of groundwater occurs primarily through holes and cracks in sewer pipes.
It accounts for hundreds of thousands of gallons of water flowing into the Dunbar Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, pushing the plant closer to its capacity than it should and reducing sewer capacity on the island overall.
“Smoke testing will help us identify all the sources of surface water getting into our sanitary sewer collection lines,” Junkin explained.
A colored mist is pumped into a manhole and seeps out through holes in the sewer system for several hundred feet from the manhole. Junkin said the method saves a lot of time and money over looking for them using more conventional means.
Any resources left over after smoke testing the sewer on St. Simons Island will be used in Brunswick, which also has issues with inflow and infiltrations.
It’s not quite as bad as St. Simons Island, mostly because the much larger Academy Creek treatment plant can handle the additional load, but it’s something the JWSC will need to address sooner or later, Junkin said.
Another carryover from 2018 the commission hopes to resolve is a SPLOST project to come up with a fix for one sewer pump station in downtown Brunswick.
It was put on hold while utility staff narrowed the scope of the project and altered the bidding procedures. It’s back on track now, Junkin said, and the construction work may be bid out by September 2019
Once complete, the city’s sewer system will be able to handle significant future growth.
“That said, new pumps have been put in the pump station and we’re looking good. Things are moving along quite nicely now,” Junkin said.
Earlier this year, the utility spent $275,000 upgrading the sewer system in the area around Exit 29 of Interstate 95. At the time, commissioners said it essentially signaled that they were once again open for business in that region.
While the utility hasn’t seen the increase in development it expected to from the project, Junkin said it could merely be the timing. Regardless, there are other things the JWSC could do in the area.
“There could be some opportunities down there,” Junkin said. “... A lot of neighborhoods through there are on septic tanks. I got a feeling a lot of these days, those septic tanks and drainage fields may not work as well as they do today. That may be a decade or two away, but there’s going to come a day when the opportunities to pick up more customers in the area may be readily apparent. It’s not immediate.”
Other utility plans to expand the sewer system in the Arco neighborhood of Brunswick will stretch into next year.
Junkin brought the subject up on multiple occasions over the last year, saying state grant money is available for such projects.
“It’s on the map and it’s not going away. We’re going to get something done for it one way or the other. It’s just figuring out which block of money,” Junkin said. “... Those grants are not huge.”
Junkin also addressed the utility’s water cutoff program. Until 2017, the utility would not cut off water service to customers who didn’t pay their bills.
Since it started doing so, the debt from unpaid water bills owed to the utility has dropped from $5.2 million at the beginning of the year to $3.4 million at the end of November.
The utility also plans to make significant internal changes in 2019. In the last two months of the year, the JWSC adopted a strategic business plan and a set of core values.
The strategic business plan involved instituting new practices and programs, improving communication with other government organizations and conducting assessments on the water and sewer systems.
It’s new core values focus on building trust with its ratepayers, investing in employees, improving the organization as a whole and maintaining a positive attitude when conducting JWSC business.
In conclusion, he said both the core values and strategic plan were designed to improve the service offered by the JWSC.
“Out of all the other things I’ve said today, you’ve got to maintain a good level of service. Our target is to meet the mission, maintain the level of service at the lowest practical cost, and these are the tools we put together in 2018 to, in the long run, make all that happen,” Junkin said.