Public outcry over graduation

After a wave of public outcry and rumors that graduation was cancelled, the Gilmer County Charter School System has announced the class of 2016 will hold its commencement service on the high school baseball field. 

The price tag for the event may come to $10,000, school officials say.

“We’re not canceling graduation. We’re just changing its location,” said Principal Eric McFee, adding the event is set to take place at 7 p.m. Friday, May 20. In the event of rain, it will be held in the school gym. 

For the last three years, GHS graduations have taken place on the field at Huff-Mosley Memorial Stadium. Due to scheduled renovations to the facility, which are set to begin with a groundbreaking ceremony Monday, Feb. 8 (see page 6B for details), that venue is not an option for this year’s ceremony. 


Renovations beginning later than expected

During a called Gilmer County Board of Education meeting Tuesday, Jan. 26, Superintendent Dr. Shanna Wilkes said the original plan was to begin construction at the stadium after the last football game in the fall of 2015. 

“The problem is when we’re dealing with all the hoops we have to jump through – to get the bids, work through the committee to get all the input from all the stakeholders of what that renovation entails — that timeline slows down,” she said. 

Board vice chair Noreen Thomas said in hindsight she would have liked to have implemented a different schedule for the construction process. 

“We’re committed because of the cost now,” she observed. 

School system attorney Herman Clark stated there would be “some hefty costs” associated with changing the construction timetable at this juncture. 

“(The construction company has) already mobilized, so you’re going to have a demobilization cost and then a remobilization cost when they start up again,” he said. “In addition to that, in the contract there are certain percentages that they’ll be entitled to. And I think the biggest harm is going to be holding the subs at their numbers.”


‘This is not a football issue’

Moving the construction start date back would also have ramifications that would adversely impact Gilmer athletics. 

“It would put us so far behind schedule that all of our football games would be played away next year,” said Wilkes. “We would not have it ready for football season. That would mean that the funding for all the other sports would be lost.” 

The superintendent reported that this past fall the football program brought in around $68,000. 

“It paid basically for all the other sports,” she said.

“This is not a football issue,” emphasized McFee, pointing out other groups also utilize the stadium facility, including soccer, track and band. “The money generated by football is what gets re-budgeted to support all the other sports – for officiating, for uniforms, for everything else. It’s that money that we bring in at football that we count on every year for all sports.”


Alternative venues 


Once it was determined the football field would not be an option, the system began to explore alternatives and gave the senior class members the chance to vote on their favorite scenario. 

McFee said of the 230 seniors, 51 percent showed up to vote. Of those, the top choice was an off-campus venue, followed by the football field at Clear Creek Middle School, the GHS baseball field and the gym. 

Wilkes told the board Fannin County offered its high school field and stadium for free. 

“I didn’t think that would go over very well, so we didn’t throw that one out there, but they were gracious enough to offer it,” she said.

Reinhardt University was looked at as a potential alternative location, but its gym has less seating than the one at GHS, and its football stadium only seats 800. With less than 600 seats, the CCMS stadium also proved too small and bringing in additional bleachers was not a cost-effective option. 

The GHS administration decided to hold graduation in the gym, but the announcement resulted in a wave of backlash from graduates and their families who feared the words “limited seating,” which were associated with the venue. 

Speaking of this possible scenario, Lori Davis, whose son and stepdaughter are set to graduate from GHS in May, told the Times-Courier, “My main concern is having somewhere we can get seats for all of our family.” 

“It’s a legitimate worry, and I completely understand it,” said McFee. 

He went on to explain that based on the size of the graduating class, each student would have received eight to 10 tickets. 

“Many, many people don’t bring 10 people,” said McFee. 

In that instance, the tickets would be returned to the school and redistributed to students who need additional tickets.

Board member Angie Thomas said, “I personally think it’s important that it’s held somewhere where unlimited guests can attend ... I don’t think you can put a price on it because this is graduation. It’s a monumental event in some of these children’s lives, for some it might possibly be the biggest day of their lives, and I don’t think we should take that lightly ... I personally have taken a lot of heat from a lot of parents because there is this misconception that it does not affect the board, but it does. It affects my daughter ... I do know how you feel because it is my child.”


Plans for graduation on the baseball field

The GHS baseball field was finally selected as the location for the upcoming ceremony. Since it does not have a large amount of seating like the stadium, the district originally considered bringing in bleachers for the event. The price of doing so proved to be too expensive, however. 

“To do bleachers only and a few chairs, the cost is about $23,000, which just seems outrageous to us to bring them in for one day, and then you chance a thunderstorm happening the day of and you move it to the gym anyway,” said Wilkes. 

As an alternative, the system has decided to rent a large number of chairs and erect a higher stage to help compensate for the lack of tiered seating. Also, the plan is to broadcast live footage of the ceremony on rented screens so attendees can see the faces of the graduates. 

McFee estimated the cost of the chair and screen rentals to be about $10,000. 

Wilkes told the Times-Courier the cost “will not harm the high school budget” but added it has yet to be determined from where the funds will be drawn. 

She also said the system does not yet have firm numbers on the cost of chair and screen rentals and that it will have to get three estimates.

The superintendent observed, “We have been working exhaustively to try to figure out the best option ... I don’t know that there’s an option that will please everybody in the end.”

“It is about the kids ... It’s going to be a gorgeous ceremony no matter where we hold it,” promised McFee when addressing the BOE. “It’s just not going to be on that football field, but we will make every effort to make sure it’s a beautiful ceremony. Moms will cry, and I’ll have tissues out there for everybody.” 

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