When we began the school facilities master planning process in 2010, the one thing I hoped it would accomplish was to right the wrongs that had been done to our district’s historic school buildings. I was dismayed to learn that Plan C doesn’t do it. Plan C calls for the preservation of the high school’s historic 1925 core, demolition of subsequent additions and the construction of new compatible spaces. It also calls for renovating the historic cores of Roxboro and Monticello middle schools. But, alas, the three historic elementary schools the district plans to retain will remain as they are, with the unfortunate additions they gained in the 1970s intact.
In 1972, Heights residents passed a $19.5 million bond issue to construct four new buildings and renovate the schools district wide. Four school buildings, dating from the early 20th century, were demolished and replaced with new, open-plan buildings that were identical in layout. The footprint buildings, as they became known, were despised by educators, parents and children alike, and it is worth noting that if Plan C becomes a reality none of the footprint buildings will remain in use as an elementary school (Taylor closed in 1986; Coventry closed in 2008; Fairfax will be closed and Boulevard will be demolished and rebuilt under Plan C).
New additions were constructed for the other district buildings. These new additions, while well intentioned, ignored the historic architecture. Additions covered the historic front entrances and turned the buildings backwards so that the main entrance faced the parking lot, making it more convenient for teachers who drove to school, but less convenient for kids who walked or biked to school. As I noted in an earlier blog post, this also had the effect of making the buildings seem unwelcoming (http://blogs.heightsobserver.org/2011/02/excess-capacity-is-closing-ch-uh-buildings-the-only-solution/).
I had hoped that these unfortunate additions would be taken off during this renovation process, but it’s not part of the plan.
“It is just too costly to take off the 1970s additions,” said Angee Shaker, director of communications for the district, when I interviewed her for a story about Plan C.
So what would it cost? Under Plan C, costs to renovate the elementary schools keeping the current footprint intact are as follows: Roxboro, $8.7 million; Oxford, $9.7 million; and Canterbury, $10.5 million. The district would spend almost $15 million to demolish the Boulevard footprint building and build a new structure, considerably more than the renovation costs of the other structures.
Scott Wagner, project manager for Regency Construction Services, one of the consultants working on the district’s master planning process said the cost of removing the 1970s additions would add almost $7.5 million to the cost of the master plan. Oxford would cost $13 million (an additional $3.3 million); Canterbury would cost $12.9 million (an additional $2.5 million); and Roxboro would cost $10.4 million (an additional $1.7 million).
Not small change, to be sure. But, here’s an idea: instead of building yet another new Boulevard Elementary School, why not renovate the current Boulevard? Boulevard is not a great building, but renovations can make it better-and for less than it will cost us to trash it and start over. Use the cost savings to renovate the remaining historic elementary schools in an appropriate manner. Respect their historic structures and make them once again compatible with the beautiful historic architecture of the homes that surround them. Turn the entrances back around to face the neighborhoods once again. Make the buildings welcoming. Maybe then the folks who buy homes in our neighborhoods because they value their historic architecture will consider sending their children to our public schools.
If we don’t right this wrong, we’ll have lost a big opportunity. We’ll spend millions of dollars and suffer through transitions and disruptions as students are shuffled between school sites. Will it be worth it? I’m not sure, and I’m not looking forward to having to wait yet another 40 years before we have another chance to make it right.