New school opening pushed back to next fall

Little Ridge Intermediate School

• Groundbreaking was held April 2019

• Original completion date was August 2020 

• Size is 100,556 square feet on 21 acres

• Designed to contain 47 classrooms

• Called 'intermediate' to serve approximately 750 students between elementary and middle school grades

Fort Payne’s children, parents and teachers will have to wait a little longer to open their present as the city’s new school, Little Ridge Intermediate, will not open as planned this Christmas.

City Superintendent Jim Cunningham told the Fort Payne Board of Education Thursday night that the new campus will not host classroom instruction until August.

“The dream of getting in at Christmas – that’s just not going to happen,” he told the school board. Despite pushing hard to meet the deadline, he reported that the contractors have struggled to overcome a combination of unusually wet weather.

School board members toured the campus June 25.

“I don’t know if they’re struggling to get enough workers,” Cunningham said. “It’s coming along. The ceiling grid is in now. It’s just a big place. They have started preparing the roads and now all of these rains. I think their big hurdle now is getting air on this next month in a portion of the building so they can get an overhead inspection to move the next portion of the building, plus getting entranceways in. That’s important because if they wait until past October, finding dry weather for paving is going to be tough,” Cunningham said.

Construction bids were approved in December 2018, awarding the job to Baggette Construction, Inc., of Decatur, for $19.3 million. The groundbreaking was held in April 2019. Originally, the scheduled completion date was this August.

Asked for comment after the meeting, Baggette Construction CEO George Hunt said, “The progress of the construction was greatly affected by an unusual weather pattern that directly affected the critical path. The unforeseen pandemic influence, which restricted major material production from suppliers, added to the construction delays. However, the construction team is diligently working together to prosecute the work and to provide the quality construction expected by the superintendent and Fort Payne School Board.”

The new school will replace Williams Avenue Elementary, in service since 1954. The city of Fort Payne used $20 million of bond money to put towards the new school.

Construction bids were approved in December 2018, awarding the job to Baggette Construction, Inc., of Decatur, for $19.3 million.

The city of Fort Payne used $20 million of bond money to put towards the new school. The groundbreaking was held in April 2019. Originally, the scheduled completion date was this August.

Cunningham said Thursday that the revised Christmas deadline “wasn’t the best solution anyway. So time is somewhat on our side.”

February 1 becomes the first realistic date that the construction can be finished. Cunningham added, “We’ll wait til the Fall [to use the new school]. Finishing early gives us a lot of planning on exactly what Williams Avenue would be utilized for.”

In happier news, Cunningham reported that new tennis courts at Fort Payne High School are “coming along fine. They’re going to look great. The fencing company is all set up, ready to go. The lights are ready. The surface is prepared. Tim Williams and the Fort Payne Public Works Department did a super job with the parking lot.”

The need for additional classroom space is growing quickly. Systemwide, enrollment is up by precisely 100 students from last year at 3,355. For the second nine weeks, around 600 students will attend virtually, representing 18% of the system’s students.

“We’re continuing to grow,” Cunningham said.

Especially notable is that Fort Payne averages around 235 kindergarten students but enrollment is at 279 right now.

“We’re starting to need the room at Wills Valley with Pre-K growing... It’s been a long time since [enrollment] has been that high, so we’re going to need more classrooms. We are out of classrooms there. There’s going to be another kindergarten class on Oct. 1. That will put us at 15 kindergarten classes with the possibility of a 16th at some point this year. We never know how many kindergarten students we are going to have, so this is a big number compared to what we were anticipating and what we had seen the last three years.”

Board President Jimmy Durham said DeKalb County is seeing a “huge influx of people coming in from other areas, from all over the country. You’ll see car tags from every state.”

Cunningham said other Alabama superintendents are reporting lower kindergarten enrollment numbers, so Fort Payne does not represent what’s normal. He speculated that a lot of kindergarten students in other communities have stayed home because of worries about the pandemic.

On that topic, he praised students, teachers, parents and administrators for working to start school under the conditions. Cunningham said there have been “very few cases” of COVID-19 contagion among students and teachers.

“It’s gone very smooth because we’ve had good supervision, mask wearing and washing hands,” he said. “We’ve been very serious about safety and social distancing, as much as is feasible. I appreciate everyone’s efforts. Now is not the time to get slack because what we’re doing is working.”

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