For the past seven years, the Clarke County School Board has been trying to figure out what to do with the old West Broad School. Tear down all three buildings? Tear down two? Move the administrative offices there? Allow the creation of a community center and community kitchen? Continue to let neighborhood residents grow vegetables and fruits on the property? Turn the Minor Street building into a museum celebrating Black educational history in Athens? Renovate for a program of Early Head Start and Head Start? Open a health clinic?
The board voted unanimously May 19 to keep—and eventually, restore and renovate—the buildings under the control of the school district. CCSD will decide what activities will take place at West Broad. This decision means the Athens Land Trust’s detailed funding and programming plans for the buildings and the land that were offered years ago are kaput.
Former school superintendent Phil Lanoue wanted to relocate the district’s administrative offices from Mitchell Bridge Road to the West Broad School, but abandoned that idea when experts realized the buildings couldn’t meet the district’s square footage needs. Earlier this year, the central office moved into the former Piedmont College/Prince Avenue Baptist Church building, with Piedmont moving into a new building in Normaltown.
Then, current Superintendent Xernona Thomas proposed an early learning center at West Broad, but the school board shot down her proposal because members wanted to save more of the historic campus rather than tear down the 1950s Campbell Street building and build new. Thomas then shifted gears and started renovating the old Gaines Elementary School for early learning.
Before COVID ended face-to-face encounters, while Demond Means was superintendent, board meetings saw some of those offering public comment on West Broad’s future berate and even threaten board members. At Thursday’s meeting, there was no public comment, just board members sharing ideas.
Board member Kara Dyckman wants the buildings to be used for the district’s academic needs. Another, Greg Davis, wondered if the Athens Community Career Academy could house a construction pathway at West Broad. Linda Davis advocated for including a museum celebrating Black educational history in the 1930s Minor Street building, though Thomas said the school district can’t fund such a facility. Linda Davis has said the buildings are the last remaining intact school buildings from the segregation era and as such are iconic for the African-American community in Athens.
Mumbi Anderson said the three buildings offer the district a chance to create something “innovative,” to experiment and try something new, something “incredible.” Kirrena Gallagher wondered if a Montessori-style kindergarten could work there. Dyckman suggested the BOE reach out to the various advisory boards and also to students for their ideas. Thomas said it will take time to research what would be a good fit in the West Broad School buildings and to find funding sources.
There is currently no money allocated for renovating West Broad. ESPLOST 6, which voters approved last fall, is expected to generate $130 million over the next five years. It will pay for a new $35 million-plus Clarke Middle School, to be completed in the fall of 2024, for renovations at Cedar Shoals High School, as well as projects at Gaines, Alps Road and Cleveland Road elementary schools, plus new school buses and upgraded kitchen, custodial, technology and security equipment.
Also on Thursday, the board learned that Cognia, the accrediting agency brought in by Means to settle a feud with board members, says there are still areas of concern. These focus on leadership capacity, including adhering to a code of ethics and demonstrating organizational effectiveness.
Cognia itself may face evaluation. During the 2023 session of the Georgia General Assembly, Sen. Lindsey Tippins (R-Marietta) introduced a bill to change how the accreditation agency operates, but it died on crossover day. Senate Bill 498 would have required accreditation to be based on fiscal management (20 percent) and academics (80 percent), and not on board governance, as state law currently requires.
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