After years of planning and a gamut of financial and developmental obstacles, the new state-of-the-art Iotla Valley Elementary School is nearly finished. The multi-million dollar facility is just days from opening for hundreds of students.
Iotla Elementary’s completion wa a collective effort on the local government’s part in recent years to upgrade the county’s school system, while consolidating other longstanding schools. With the new school year beginning next week, the facility’s completion is right on time, and closes another phase in the county’s academic agenda.
The school seems to be ready to handle the decades ahead, not to mention the approximately 350 students slated to attend this coming academic year, kindergarten through fourth grade. “The school is actually set up to accommodate up to 600 students,” said County Manager Jack Horton. “There is certainly room for growth.”
As of Tuesday, construction workers were busy tying up loose ends and moving school equipment to the proper areas. Information technology professionals were busy linking up school computers to the massive built-in network contained in the school. The fourth grade area, situated on the bottom floor of the school, will be ready by September.
The long road to fruition
The $14 million school has come a very long way since workers hustled to get it into working order earlier this week.
The process for the conception of the school began back in late 1996. The school has been funded and constructed through the utilization of the interoperability compact between the Macon County Board of Commissioners and the Macon County Board of Education. The $14 million debt for the cost of the school will fall solely on the county.
In 2008, the commissioners voted to build the new Mountain View Intermediate School. At the end of the year, the Iotla project was put on the “back burner,” as the recession hit Macon County hard, Horton explained.
In the fall of 2009, commissioners decided to get started on the project and took a major first step by attaining an affordable loan to finance it, along with economic stimulus funds, to be financed for 17 years, at $118 per square foot. A tax rate increase of 1.5 cents was later instituted to pay for the debt service on the project.
“It’s a good investment for the future and it’s good for taxpayers. It saves them a lot of money,” said Horton.
On Oct. 14, 2010, contracts had been awarded for the construction of the new Iotla Valley Elementary School and its onsite wastewater and sewer treatment plant. H&M Contractors received the contract for construction of the school itself, being the lowest bidder of the five in competition. A ground breaking ceremony for the new facility was held on Oct. 25, 2010.
The timely acceptance of the bids helped the county to secure a 0.48 percent interest rate, which according to county officials will save the county thousands of dollars over the life of the loan.
“It’s been several years,” said Horton. “But we finally got here. We really first got to start work on this back in 2008.”
Wrought with longevity in mind— ‘smarter’ features and energy usage
The new school is significantly larger than its predecessor, being approximately 94,000 square feet. In fact, it’s the largest elementary school in Macon County, according to Horton. Like all the other new schools, technology is as essential to its foundation as the new rooms, space and materials included in it now.
All throughout the school’s winding halls and corridors, the color scheme reemphasizes the school’s commitment to improved space and technological proficiency—the colors of beige, blue and red. Bell explained that the dark blue color, agreed upon by faculty, was added to the school to incorporate the colors of both Cowee Elementary and the old Iotla Elementary, the two schools that will be consolidated in the new facility.
Although the shelves of the new library have yet to be lined with books, the room itself is outfitted with surveillance cameras, computers, wireless internet and more. These features largely follow the layout and theme of the rest of the school.
Included now within the library is a media room, set to handle morning announcements and audio/visual news generated by students and faculty.
“What we have here is a program where we will be set up to broadcast live in all rooms,” explained school administrator Terry Bell, a long time educator and Southwestern Community College Board of Trustees member.
Lastly, the school’s classrooms will now be arrayed with “smart boards,” taking the place of traditional dry-erase or blackboards. Basically, the new teacher’s tool is an interactive whiteboard equipped with touch detection technology for user input. An LCD projector is used to display the device’s computer video, which then acts as a touch screen.
“The teacher can go to her computer, pull up what she needs during her lesson and project that on to the [smart board’s] screen,” Bell explained. “When they walk up to the board, she can start writing and teaching on the board digitally. This is an interactive computer screen for the class.”
The gymnasium, big enough to handle up to 500 visitors, according to Bell, is a clone of the gym at East Franklin Elementary and Mountain View Intermediate. Along with height-adjustable basketball goals, mechanical gym divider, electronic scoreboards and a stage large enough to hold a Broadway performance, its ceiling is also outlined with sound-absorbing boards.
One of the biggest triumphs of the facility’s construction was its geothermal heating, venting and air conditioning system.
With 96 wells drilled 450 feet deep, the project cost an estimated $950,000 for the entire air conditioning system. It remains largely hidden beneath the parking lot out front, and is the second such installation, following that of Mountain View Intermediate School.
“It’s like putting a radiator in the ground,” said Bell.
In essence, the geothermal system utilizes a constant temperature found beneath the earth as a heat source in the colder months or as a heat sink in the warmer months. The design takes advantage of consistent earthen temperatures, which boosts efficiency and reduces the operational costs proposed by standard heating and cooling systems.
“In the next five years you’re making money,” Bell said of the system’s cost efficiency. “Normally it would cost you an arm and a leg to heat or cool your house when you generate your own temperature and air. This is much more effective.”
Another energy saving feature of the school is each classroom’s lighting system, which automatically comes on as people enter the room, and shuts off 20 minutes after activity within the room ceases.
The facility also has its own generator system, so that school is never out for students in the event of a power outage.
“From the middle grades on down, we’ll be in good shape,” said Horton. “We’re still going to do some work in Highlands, we’re still going to do some work at the High School and some additional work in Nantahala down the road.”
“I think Macon County had a good eye for the future,” said Tom Ramsey, supervisor of H&M Construction, the general contracting firm responsible for building the facility. “It’s a great piece of work.” Ramsey’s company has overseen the construction of both Mountain View Intermediate School and the renovation of numerous schools throughout the county.
Horton and Bell, thankful to see the project nearing completion, couldn’t thank enough all the parties involved—from the taxpayers to county officials to educational workers.
“I would like to thank first and foremost the county commission for working close with the board of education for making this possible,” said Horton. “The county commission took the lead on this in the past and the present, at a time when costs were low with the economic plunge.”
“Terry Bell has been a tremendous help,” Horton continued. “He was one valuable source of help for us and the school. This is an example of what happens when people get together and don’t want to take credit. A lot can get accomplished.”
“This is built for children, both current and future, and it’s a wise investment. The county commission is proud of this school,” he concluded. “It’s been a struggle overcoming all of the delays on this project.”
The official opening and dedication of the new Iotla Valley Elementary School will be held on Monday, Aug. 6, beginning at 10 a.m. at the school site on Iotla Church Road.