Pope Elementary is scheduled to open for classes in August of 2025.
But that opening day is in serious jeopardy already as the building is still in the planning and design stages.
Jackson-Madison County Schools leadership met with Henson Construction – the company hired to build the school – and the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) to discuss the project in its planned location on Ashport Road between the intersections with Pleasant Plains Road and Old Humboldt Road.
The recommendations from the BZA and the City of Jackson include a list of items that include a roundabout at the intersection with Pleasant Plains, a right-turn lane on Ashport at the intersection with Old Humboldt, widening Ashport to include a turn lane in front of the school, widening Old Humboldt to include a turn lane onto Ashport and extending the right turn lane on Old Humboldt at the Highway 45 Bypass all the way to the frontage road where the Girl Scouts office building.
These recommendations cause two major issues with the schedule – finances and deadlines.
“Of everything that’s been budgeted for this project, $500,000 was budgeted for offsite improvements,” said Cary Henson, owner of Henson Construction. “That much would possibly cover widening Ashport, but not much more.”
The roundabout was suggested by the City since it’s a cheaper option than installing a stoplight in that location, which will also include a yet-to-be-built road approaching from the north as local developer Jerry Winberry bought the tract of land next to the school and plans a 50-home development for that area.
The roundabout in Downtown Jackson at the intersection of North Highland Avenue and Deadrick Street cost about $1.2 million to construct when former Mayor Jerry Gist had it built in conjunction with the Jackson Walk development nearby.
During a meeting of the JMCSS Board’s capital committee on Wednesday, school board members asked questions of Henson, Jackson Mayor Scott Conger and City Planner Stan Pilant about possible options to mitigate costs and ease the construction/school transfer process.
“We simply can’t afford it because the money isn’t there,” said board member Harvey Walden. “And we’re hoping the City or Jackson Energy Authority or anyone else can help us out with that.”
Board member Sherry Franks, who has a child at Pope, asked about the necessity of widening the roads at the Old Humboldt/Ashport intersection.
“You’re taking out an important part of the parking lot where drop off and pick up happens for Kindergarten and first grade in the current building, so is there any way that part can wait until we’re in the new school before that happens?” Franks asked.
While Pilant stopped short of saying there’s no way, he did say that he couldn’t see a way at this point.
“If we wait to do that portion of the project, then we’re moving the same problem to a new building,” Pilant said. “And zoning and development regulations say we can’t wait to do that part.”
As far as the financial cost, Conger did offer one bit of hope for the school board.
“As far as I’m concerned, the City will do what we can to work with you,” Conger said to which multiple board members were grateful. “We want to be a good partner, but we’re just now coming into the conversation.
“But now that we’re here in the conversation, we’re telling you we will work with you. And if that means that instead of paying all of it in one year but instead paying part of it over the course of three or five years to make it work in your budget, that’s something we can do.”
Walden, Franks, Andre Darnell, Jason Compton and James “Pete” Johnson all expressed gratitude for that statement from Conger along with Deputy Superintendent Ricky Catlett and Director of Operations Jason Bridgeman.
But there is still the issue of timing.
While building the building, widening the roads, installing the roundabout and infrastructure will take their time and that time is manageable, the City still has to procure right of way from property owners that touch all of these areas.
“Without really looking at it, we’re probably looking at 12 to 15 property owners these areas touch,” Compton said. “How long could that take?”
Conger referenced the City’s current project of the Greenway from Bemis to Downtown and having to get property access for that.
“That project has been going on for five years now,” Conger said.
Madison County Deputy Mayor Terica Smith used her experience with her law background to help everyone in the meeting understand that process.
“The property owners see an opportunity to make some money, so it’s a matter of how long the negotiation takes with each one,” Smith said.
So everyone left the meeting with plans of beginning the construction process later this year and hoping to open in 2025.
“But we’ve got plenty of work to do to make it happen,” Walden said.Brandon Shields, email@example.com