As the Columbia County school year winds to a close and seniors prepare for commencement exercises next weekend, it signals the end of an era.
And no, we’re not just talking about the retirement of School Superintendent Charles Nagle, though he’s largely responsible for the significant change that’s coming with the closure of Bel Air Elementary School.
The closure next year won’t even be readily visible, because the campus will be used as the temporary site of Martinez Elementary. That school will be torn down this summer, with construction starting on a new, larger two-story building that is becoming the new normal for county schools.
It will be the county’s fourth two-story facility in the modern era. The first was Stallings Island, and next year the new Evans Elementary and Columbia Middle schools will open on new sites in two-story buildings.
Once this cycle is complete, the county will have eliminated an elementary school – Bel Air – along with the costs for its administrative infrastructure.
The school board on Tuesday received from Nagle the newest version of the county’s five-year facilities plan, which is submitted to the state in preparation for future construction needs. For Columbia County there are plenty of them, especially as some of the elementary schools, like Bel Air, approach or pass the 50-year mark.
It’s not just age that troubles those older schools, including North Columbia, Grovetown and North Harlem Elementary and Harlem Middle; it’s size. Hallways are narrow and lunchrooms are small, and the classrooms aren’t big enough for the class-size increases the county has created to meet tighter budgets. As new schools are built, they’re planned to accommodate larger populations and to sit on smaller, less-expensive footprints of land.
Because each of those schools can handle more students, it reduces the need for additional schools to accommodate the system’s continued growth. That’s vitally important in a school system that each year enrolls enough new students to fill Bel Air.
As the school year, and Nagle’s career, comes to a close, that’s one significant legacy he’ll leave behind to the benefit of education and taxpayers for years to come.