The Clarke County Board of Education narrowly voted to reject a proposal to tear down two historic Black school buildings from the Jim Crow era to make way for an early learning center on West Broad Street near Hancock Avenue.
Board President LaKeisha Gantt and members Kara Dyckman, Tawanna Mattox and Patricia Yager voted in favor of Superintendent Xernona Thomas’ recommendation to approve demolition and construction contracts, while Mumbi Anderson, Greg Davis, Linda Davis, Kirrena Gallagher and Nicole Hull voted against it. The vote effectively killed the project for the time being, until Thomas comes back with a new plan.
The fate of the school property has been a hot-button issue for years, dating back to former superintendent Philip Lanoue’s proposal to turn it into the district’s central office, which drew pushback because it involved paving over a popular community garden and farmers’ market for parking. Lanoue’s successor, Demond Means, ended CCSD’s agreement with the Athens Land Trust and pushed through the early learning center. The site became controversial once again this year, when current superintendent Xernona Thomas unveiled plans calling for the demolition of a 1958 building on Campbell Lane that preservationists have cited as valuable for its International-style architecture and as one of the few remaining examples of a school from the 1950s Equalization Era, when Southern school districts built better facilities for Black students to try to maintain the “separate-but-equal” policy struck down in Brown v. Board of Education.
“Campbell is an important building,” community activist and historian Fred Smith told board members at the Sept. 9 meeting. “It speaks to an important time in our history, a very special time.”
Smith and another local civil rights leader, lawyer Ken Dious, worked with the preservation group Historic Athens to organize opposition to tearing down the Campbell Lane building. Historic Athens also unearthed emails through an open records request showing that architect Becky Pope and John Gilbreath, CCSD’s SPLOST director, undermined historic preservation consultant Jacqueline Bass when she told them that the Campbell Lane building could be saved and that tearing it down could create problems with federal regulators. This came after another historic preservation architect quit because she said Pope and Gilbreath weren’t listening to her input.
However, Thomas, Pope and Gilbreath stuck with their recommendation for a “two building” plan, preserving a 1938 Minor Street schoolhouse and tearing down the Campbell Lane building and a dilapidated 1954 cafeteria and adding a new building with Head Start and Early Head Start classrooms. The “three building” plan, they said, created issues with pickup and dropoff lanes and would entail ramps between buildings that might be difficult for toddlers to walk up or teachers to push strollers up. It could also jeopardize a $3.9 million federal grant by pushing back the timeline for construction.
Another point of contention: Renovating the Campbell Lane building would add $3.6 million to the $10 million project, and Thomas said that might require delaying a new fieldhouse at Cedar Shoals High School. Cedar Shoals parents and coaches objected to that idea, pointing out that Clarke Central has already received a new fieldhouse.
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