Two long-closed Bibb schools could become apartment homes

Rice+Elementary+School+and+Neel+Elementary+School

Bibb County Tax Assessor

Rice Elementary School and Neel Elementary School

Two long-closed Bibb County Schools could be converted into single-family apartment complexes in the coming years.

The Bibb County School Board voted to sell Neel and Rice elementary schools after receiving an offer from a newly formed Griffin-based company Next Step Capital, LLC on behalf of Texas-based Next Step Homes LLC.

The board also voted to sell a sliver of land beside Sonny Carter Elementary School on Zebulon Road to Chick-fil-A Inc. for $750k. The extra three quarters of an acre would allow the fast food restaurant to expand its operations to include extra capacity to increase seating to 130, space for 58 cars to park and room for another 45 cars in the drive-thru.

The old schools are surplus property and Next Step Homes has plans to convert them into apartments.

Neel Elementary School was built in 1964 on a 7-acre lot at 2840 Hightower Road, according to the Bibb County Tax Assessor’s website. Part of the building was constructed in the mid ’50s, according to a summary of archived school board meeting minutes. Its current value is $445,170 and the school board approved the sale for $90k.

The school board voted to sell Neel Elementary to another company for $75,000 in December 2017, but the sale apparently fell through. The building has been used as a voting precinct since the school closed decades ago.

Jessie Rice Elementary School in Bloomfield was among several schools the district closed and consolidated in 2015 to cut costs. Rice students were moved to what is now Southfield Elementary.

Rice elementary was built in 1970 on a 12-acre lot at 3750 Jessie Rice St. just south of Eisenhower Parkway and between Pio Nono Avenue and Interstate 75. Its current value is $1.2 million, according to the tax assessor’s website.

Sam Kitchens, director of the district’s capital programs, told the board the building had been vandalized and damaged since it was last appraised, so the district got an estimate for the damages and deducted that from the value. The school board approved the sale of the school for $370k.

Board member Juawn Jackson asked Kitchens whether any research was done on the company’s success in converting schools to apartments.

“From what we can tell, it has been successful even though this company has not been in business very long,” Kitchens said.

Next Step Homes has offices in Atlanta, Houston and India. Its website lists a portfolio that includes a $5 million investment in the 130-room Clarion hotel, near Riverside Drive and Tom Hill Boulevard.

The hotel is currently owned by Centerville-based Infinity Lodging Group LLC, which purchased it for $1.5 million in 2017.

Sam Datta, co-founder and managing partner for Next Step Homes, said the hotel is “under contract and will be closing very soon.”

“We are also in contact with the Bibb county zoning office as well as Mayor’s office to convert the hotel into 130 efficiency multi-family units,” Datta said in an email to The Macon Newsroom.

In other business Thursday, the school board voted to approve $3.9 million in employee retention bonuses to be paid for with federal American Rescue Plan money. Full-time employees will get $1,000 and part-time or contracted employees will get $500, according to school board documents. The bonus is set to be paid out no later than Feb. 17, records show.

A change to pay periodicity also was discussed for next school year. Sharon Roberts, the district’s chief financial officer, told the board twice weekly pay instead of monthly pay would help make the district more competitive as it works to attract and retain teachers.

State law forces new board policy

The board complied with a new state law upon adopting a policy on “materials harmful to minors.”

In a 7-1 vote, the school board approved the new policy that gives parents and guardians an avenue to formally object to library books and other material in each schools’ media center. The new policy gives the superintendent direct control over rules that govern individual school libraries.

In addition to creating a “library media materials appeal form” for parents, the new policy allows the superintendent to appoint an administrator to act as a liaison between the district, the Georgia Department of Education and school media center personnel “regarding media centers and instructional media materials,” according to board documents.

Board member Daryl Morton expressed concern about the lack of definition for “materials.”

Tom Joyce, the district’s lawyer, said, “The legislature did not do us any favor in that regard.”

Several district employees explained the multi-pronged process used to choose library books and textbooks.

Board member Sundra Woodford asked, “in this culture of book banning,” whether anyone had recently submitted a request for such materials to be reconsidered. She was told it had been a couple of years since the last request.

Morton was the lone vote against adopting the policy.

“I’m disappointed in the legislature for making us do this. This undermines the hard work that’s being done to educate our children,” Morton said. “The most dangerous thing that our children have access to in school that would expose them to harmful materials is a cell phone.”

Another policy regarding media center materials was amended Thursday. The revised policy requires that any decision on whether “materials are harmful to minors” be made only after consultation with the assistant superintendent of teaching and learning. The old policy left those decisions up to each school’s principal, but the revised version will allow for more consistency across the district, according to board documents.

Also Thursday, the board approved:

  • The purchase of Virtual Machine Servers, equipment housed at each school to archive security camera footage, “to assure important videos are stored and available as expected by our stakeholders,” according to school board documents. The Dell Technologies servers will cost about $253,600 and the district will purchase them using general funds.
  • The purchase of network switches from Macon-based AiOS Group for $3,045,200 in federal ESSER funds.
  • The renewal of workers’ compensation excess insurance policy with Star Insurance Company for $132,618.

Editor’s note: This story was updated after initial publication to include that parts of Neel Elementary were constructed in the ’50s, according to a summary of archived school board meeting minutes.

To contact Civic Journalism Fellow Laura Corley, call 478-301-5777 or email [email protected]