The Clarke County Board of Education is scheduled to decide this week whether to knock down a historic Jim Crow-era school building off West Broad Street to make way for a new early learning center, or scrap the project once again and start over from scratch.
“What we’re asking is to move forward in one way or another,” Superintendent Xernona Thomas said at a Sept. 1 work session.
Administrators presented two plans for Head Start and Early Head Start programs at the long-vacant West Broad School. Both would save the oldest building, built in 1938 facing Minor Street, and demolish a dilapidated cafeteria facing Broad Street that was built in the 1950s. At issue is a building facing Campbell Lane that was built around the same time, and is significant as one of the few remaining schools from the “equalization era,” when Southern school districts built better facilities for Black students in hopes of staving off integration.
While administrators and architects presented options to include or demolish the Campbell Lane building, it was clear which way they’re leaning—toward tearing it down. The Campbell Lane building’s classrooms are too small for anyone but infants, they said. Tearing it down would create space for an outdoor classroom and an easier-to-navigate bus loop and eliminate the need for ramps that might be difficult to push a stroller up or for toddlers to walk on.
“We can’t put a monetary value on history, on heritage,” Thomas said, but it has a price tag anyway. That price tag is $3.6 million to save the Campbell Lane building, in addition to $10 million already budgeted for a new building on the cafeteria site and renovating Minor Street. That number is an estimate from Grail Construction, based on a report by Roswell historic preservation architect Jacqueline Bass, according to SPLOST Director John Gilbreath. A federal grant might be available, Thomas said, but right now the only identified source of funds is SPLOST money set aside for a fieldhouse at Cedar Shoals High School, which would be pushed back into E-SPLOST 6, scheduled for a vote this November.
In addition to discussion of the Campbell Lane building, some neighborhood residents wondered whether the renovations to Minor Street and the loss of the campus’ courtyard would threaten the potential for official historic status. “Collectively, [the property] has a history, but Minor Street has its own history” and could be considered for designation by itself, Bass said.
The renovation project seems as though it has a history almost as long as the property itself. Former superintendent Philip Lanoue eyed the site for administrative offices, but that plan became controversial because it involved paving over a community garden for a parking lot. Later, Lanoue’s replacement, Demond Means, determined that the site was too small for the central office and pushed through the early learning plan, citing a waiting list of parents wanting to get their children into Head Start and pre-K. Thomas, who took the reins in 2019, fast-tracked the early learning center in April after receiving a $3.9 million federal grant that carried a March deadline to finish construction.
However, the preservation group Historic Athens organized opposition to tearing down the Campbell Lane building, and Head Start granted CCSD an extension. Later, Barbara Black, the historic preservation consultant hired by architectural firm Lindsey Pope Brayfield, quit because she said neither the architects nor Gilbreath were listening to her advice. Bass was then hired, but the public has not seen her report. Historic Athens filed an open records request for documents related to historic preservation, but were told it would cost $400 to redact. Gilbreath told Flagpole he didn’t want to give a school shooter a map of the building, but that’s not an exemption listed in the Georgia Open Records Act, and building blueprints are readily available from other sources.
If the school board votes Sept. 9 to move forward, the development will include 16 classrooms for 112 infants through 3-year-olds, as well as two playgrounds, an activity room, a media center and a “heritage room” with information about the history of the campus. In the evenings, the facilities would be available for use by the community.
While the fate of the Campbell Lane building is the main issue to be resolved, residents had other concerns as well, like whether the property could one day be sold to developers and who would repair damage done to the streets by construction equipment. Gilbreath said he would raise that issue with the Athens-Clarke County Transportation and Public Works Department.
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