(Author's note: This is the first of two articles on the Walton High School SPLOST proposal. The second article will appear on East Cobb Patch Friday.)
The sounds of an Aaron Copland composition waft through the lobby area of Walton High School during a late morning class period.
It's a pleasant greeting for visitors, although students, staff and volunteers shuffling in and out of the main office are used to the accompaniment.
The calming strains of an American symphonic master are a welcome, if momentary respite during a busy day, and are heard clearly and crisply.
They couldn't possibly be coming from a classroom. Well, yes and no.
Around a corner, at the entrance to the nearby fine arts hallway, several violin students are standing and playing while reading from their music sheets on metal stands.
On the other side of a set of double doors, more string music students are practicing their scales.
For many Walton fine arts students, hallways have become regular classrooms, as the demand for music, theater, band, orchestra, choral and other programs has vastly outgrown the available space to hold them.
These aspiring musicians and artists aren't the only Walton students who've grown accustomed to improvising instructional space, or sitting in classrooms with little elbow room.
But the lobbying efforts for a new fine arts facility reflect a highly-organized campaign by Walton parents to overhaul a 37-year-old campus that has been overcrowded for years.
Their persistence has yielded an ambitious plan as Cobb voters prepare to go to the polls on March 19. At issue is whether an Education SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) will be extended for an additional $717 million in school construction and maintenance projects.
Of that amount, nearly $40 million -- the largest earmark for any school in the Cobb County School District -- would go to Walton if the referendum is approved.
In addition to a new fine arts facility and a new gymnasium, Walton parents were able to press for the construction of a classroom addition.
Seeking an end to 'Band-Aid' solutions
Walton, which opened its doors in 1975 as the third high school in East Cobb (after Sprayberry and Wheeler) has an enrollment of around 2,600 in a facility built for less than 2,000. Its reputation as an academic and athletic powerhouse in Cobb and Georgia has quite a bit to do with that.
But parents say previous SPLOST funding has hardly been enough to address the school's comprehensive long-term needs, including replacing an aging structure. According to their estimates, Walton is 47,000 square feet smaller than it needs to be accommodate classrooms and activity space for its student body.
"People think our facility is like our academics and our athletics, but they don't match," said Patti Morgan, vice president of the Walton Facilities Foundation, which has been spearheading the school community's SPLOST campaign.
When the proposed SPLOST IV notebook was issued by Cobb school officials last summer, the Walton project amounted to $14 million in renovations, including $9 million for a new gym and $2 million to expand and reconfigure existing fine arts space. Walton parents complained those plans were inadequate.
"We've had Band-Aids before," said Vonda Shoemaker, the foundation's president and CEO. "We were asking, 'What's the big picture? What's the best way to approach this?' "
The foundation began mapping out a new master plan 18 months ago, initiated by Walton Principal Judy McNeill. Foundation members walked the long rambling hallways, taking photos and gathering logistical data.
"Long before this ever became a SPLOST issue," Shoemaker said, the mission also included determining the Cobb school district's standards for the facility.
In almost every important aspect, they found that what existed at Walton fell far short of the specifications.
When other Walton parents began speaking out about SPLOST last fall, the work the foundation had been doing proved useful.
At a September town hall meeting at Walton with Cobb Board of Education member Scott Sweeney, parents were adamant that the initial Walton plans had to be seriously upgraded for them to vote in favor of SPLOST.
"Walton is a shining star for the county, not just in athletics and academics but also in fine arts," said Alan Abrams, co-president of the Walton Band Parents Organization and employing a common phrase uttered by Walton parents.
It was a message the rest of the board would hear in short order.
The 'shining star' is heard
At public comment sessions of school board meetings for several weeks, Walton parents were the most frequent speakers. Morgan and Abrams were among them, along with Georgia PTA legislative chairwoman Karen Hallacy, a Walton band mom, the president of the Walton Basketball Booster Club and others.
When the final SPLOST IV notebook was updated and a referendum was called, the Walton project had grown to just under $40 million. The foundation hired architects to draw up a fine arts center design. Morgan wouldn't disclose how much was paid for that work.
The Walton project would include $24.4 million for the fine arts complex and theater and $9 million for the gym, including an indoor track that does not exist and expanded space for wrestling and other indoor athletic activities in.
Preliminary plans call for the classroom addition to be a three-story building that would include a cafeteria and media center. It would be built on the present site of the varsity tennis courts and softball complex, which would be relocated.
"We have been able to show there's a way to do this," Morgan said.
If Cobb voters approve, SPLOST IV collections would begin on Jan. 1, 2014 and conclude on Dec. 31, 2018.
Walton parents will be holding a SPLOST informational meeting on Monday, March 4, beginning at 7 p.m. at the school.
Spanish teacher Olympia Diaz is as eager as anyone for a brand new Walton to be built.
Her classroom, ideally designed for 20 students, is one of many at Walton without windows. She said her smallest class is 30 students, and several desks are lined up against a side wall to provide some extra room to move around.
While she raves about the facilities at Kell High School, where she previously taught, Diaz marvels at what Walton students accomplish in spite of the building that houses them.
"This is the flagship school of Cobb County," said Diaz, who came to Walton two years ago. "These kids continue to excel in everything that they do with the limited resources and space they have.
"They deserve a new facility."
Coming Friday: Walton parents respond to criticism that the school's proposed SPLOST improvements are "bait" to help get the referendum passed.