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Students walk the halls at the current Altama Elementary school.

Community members complained, and the school board listened. That was the message Wednesday from opponents of an original plan to build a new Altama Elementary near a federal Superfund environmental cleanup site.

The previous plan — to build the new school on the same 18-acre property as the current facility — drew criticism from many people in the community who expressed fears that the property is unsafe, due to the adjacent Superfund site.

On Wednesday, some of those critics commended the school board’s decision to pursue a new plan.

“It’s great that they are trying to move away from the Superfund site, and we’re really grateful that they decided to reconsider,” said Rachael Thompson, a project manager for the Glynn Environmental Coalition, who has addressed the school board publicly at several meetings over the last few months and asked members to pick a new site.

The Glynn County Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday to authorize the execution of a contract to purchase 27.65 acres of land, located at 6045 Altama Ave., for no more than $1.4 million.

The site is three-fourths of a mile from the current school property.

Virgil Cole, Superintendent of Glynn County Schools, said at the meeting Tuesday that the school system has aimed to be transparent throughout the site selection process.

“It has been a rather long road with some challenges along the way,” Cole said. “We have looked at this as an opportunity, and we are hopeful that we are getting closer to providing this community with a much needed new school.”

The school board has considered several pieces of property for Altama’s replacement over the last few years.

The plan to build on the current property met requests from many people in the school’s community to keep the school in the same neighborhood, in close proximity to the homes of the students who attend Altama.

The school system began conducting tests in fall 2017 on the current school property to determine the safety of the site.

The Superfund site, a former landfill for Hercules, Inc., was once used as a dumping ground for toxic waste. The federal Environmental Protection Agency shut the landfill down in 1980.

Tests came back negative for toxic waste on the school property. However, as the school board began taking steps to seek site approval, community members started to publicly speak out against the plan. Many said they were concerned building the school on that property would potentially lead to health issues for future staff and students at Altama Elementary.

Jen Hilburn, the Altamaha Riverkeeper who spoke out against the plan, said plans for the new Altama Elementary should never have been located by the Superfund site.

“Superfund sites are the most toxic sites in the nation,” she said. “That’s our EPA saying ‘These are the worst of the worst’ … This is a great opportunity for the school board to right a wrong and to change the course of the lives of the youth in that area.”

School board members cited the community’s concerns Tuesday when discussing their decision to pursue a new property on which to build the school.

Benefits of the new property, Cole said, include a less complicated construction schedule, the potential to install a geothermal system to heat and cool the facility and, most importantly, the ability to build the new school in the same neighborhood.

“While we have applied for state approval for our current site, the bottom line is we believe that this could have the potential of being an even better site for the school,” Cole said.

The land purchase contract comes with several preceding conditions. The seller has to obtain a clearance letter from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, Cole said, and the state’s Department of Education will need to approve the site.

Thompson said she’s unaware of any environmental issues on the new site, but the GEC intends to conduct research on the property’s history. Her first concern, though, would be potential wetlands on the property.

But she said the school system has been receptive in the past to working with the coalition to ensure that wetland issues are mitigated.

“We’re definitely optimistic about this new site,” she said.

The school board has been in a difficult position throughout the site selection process, Thompson said, as many others in the community were also pushing them to build on the current site.

But, she said, the GEC’s mission is to assure a clean environment for Glynn County’s residents, so they had to look at the situation holistically.

“The students are our future, and we want to see the board of education prioritize a safe and healthy environment for our students and to be essentially fostering a good environment for them to succeed,” Thompson said.

Hilburn said she’s pleased with the school board’s decision to pursue a new property.

“A lot of people have worked behind the scenes, from our chamber to our legislators, helping the school board understand that they would not support that decision,” she said. “I commend them, and I commend the school board for making this decision.”

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