HOWARD – Nearly a year ago, the East Knox Board of Education began discussing the need to renovate the junior/senior high school, part of which was built in 1939. Now, the board has reached a consensus on how it would like to see the renovations done.
The board expressed support last Thursday for one of several options brought forth by architects in recent months. The option calls for the demolition and replacement of the junior/senior high school, with the exception of the 1994 addition (which contains the gym, cafeteria, and several offices and classrooms).
The board will hold a community forum on May 14 at 6:30 p.m. in the junior/senior high gymnasium to discuss the plan with district residents. After that meeting, superintendent Steve Larcomb said the board will decide how best to proceed with the project.
The district held six community engagement sessions over the past six months to explore different renovation options and gauge public input. Those meetings were open to the public and advertised through Facebook posts, automated phone calls and letters from Larcomb on the district website.
Architects from Fanning Howey Associates visited Howard on weeknights to walk community members through the old building and lay out potential renovation options. Larcomb said the board felt comfortable with “Option 4” because it was the most efficient use of taxpayer money and district space.
If the board were to move forward with this proposal following the May 14 meeting, it would need to pass two separate resolutions – a “resolution of necessity” and a “resolution to proceed” – in June and July before placing a bond issue on the November ballot.
“And that’s a big ‘if’ at this point,” Larcomb clarified, “if the board decides to go on the ballot in November.”
Under the board’s suggested plan, the high school – which was built 80 years ago and has undergone six rounds of renovations since – would be torn down. Larcomb and the board have recently led community members through the building, which lacks air conditioning and is in need of major roof repairs. Some of the building’s windows are boarded up, and BOE vice president Derrick Steinmetz said last summer it was “not conducive to learning.”
“Doing nothing is not an option for us,” Larcomb said. “We have to address the issues in that building.”
According to estimates from the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, it would cost $13 million to gut the building’s interior while keeping the frame intact. It would cost $16.5 million to demolish the school and build a new one, Larcomb said, which the board deemed to be a more worthwhile investment.
“It’s like taking your 1975 Pacer and gutting it and replacing everything,” Larcomb said of the least expensive option. “You’ve still got a 1975 Pacer.”
In reality, Larcomb predicts the total cost of “Option 4” would end up around $18 million, due to inflation and rising construction costs. He said the board would not be willing to spend more than $20 million on the project.
Larcomb said the board prioritized cost in its decision to support “Option 4.” The board viewed each option through the prism of district “wants” and “needs,” and decided that demolishing and replacing the old school was a “need,” while doing the same for the 1994 addition was simply a “want.”
“This is a community that, you know, people work hard for their money. And so we’re not looking to build some kind of a palace,” Larcomb said. “We want to replace educational space that’s functional, that meets our students’ needs and meets our staff’s needs, and is a source of pride for the community.
“Other than gutting it... and instead of having the old shell of the building, what we’re looking at doing is the next least-expensive option.”
The board’s preferred option also includes renovations to the 1994 addition, which would stay intact through the demolition process. The district would look to replace portions of the roof (above the cafeteria and administrative offices) and install a new HVAC unit, Larcomb said. Electric and plumbing concerns would be also addressed.
The elementary building, which was included in several renovation options, would be “virtually untouched,” Larcomb said. The board is investing $300,000 to install energy-efficient lighting in all of its buildings this summer, Larcomb said, but that’d be the only change the elementary building would see.
The VoAg building, which juts out from the 1994 addition and faces State Route 36 on the south side, would be demolished in the board’s proposal. It would be moved to the east side of the new building, facing Jelloway St. This would leave more room for parking in front of the junior/senior high school.
The board seriously considered several other renovation options before agreeing on “Option 4.” One would have added the junior/senior high onto the existing elementary building, making it all one facility up the hill. However, architects said doing so would cut down on parking space and leave little room for future expansion.
The board also considered adding the junior high to the elementary building, then tearing down the junior/senior high school and building just a 9-12 facility. This would have caused efficiency issues, Larcomb said. Teachers certified to teach grades 7-12 will often offer classes for high school credit – so an eighth grader can take a high school gym class, for example – and students would have to run back and forth between buildings to make that work.
Larcomb said the fourth option gives the district “the most flexibility” moving forward.
If the board were to move forward with “Option 4” – and if voters were to pass the levy in support of it – construction would take approximately two years, Larcomb said. Junior/senior high classes would be conducted in modular units during that time.
Larcomb assumes some will criticize that idea. But as a teacher at Marion City Schools, Larcomb said he once spent two years in modulars and “we absolutely loved them.”
“We had our own air conditioning, our own heating controls within the classrooms,” he said.
Many of the students Larcomb has spoken with used modulars while attending Bladensburg Elementary School. Those students didn’t mind the change, Larcomb said.
“Is it an inconvenience? Absolutely,” Larcomb said of the modular situation. “But is it something that we can do? We think, 'Yes, we can.'”
Larcomb believes the six community engagement sessions helped the board come to its conclusion last week, and he hopes the May 14 session is well-attended. The board plans to mail invitations to every district home in an effort to get the word out.
During a time of potential transition, Larcomb says the district is in good hands with its current school board. He’s worked as a superintendent for 16 years, and he said their level of commitment is second to none.
“I’ve got five of the finest school board members I could possibly hope for,” Larcomb said. “And don’t get me wrong, I’ve had good board members along the way. But these five individuals, on this board at the same time, are the finest group that I’ve ever had the honor and pleasure to work with.
“They have their ears to the ground, they listen to the community, and they’re spread out through the community. So, I think they have a good sense of what folks are telling them.”