Structural issues force Central School closing

The school district sent letters to parents of children in the fourth through eighth grades Friday announcing plans to close Central School at least for next year and move fifth- and sixth-graders to what is now Fifth Street Middle School where they will join seventh-graders.
By: 
STEVE ROGERS
Staff Writer

A structural engineer's findings put the future of one of the region's oldest schools in doubt and means a shift for hundreds of West Point-Clay County students next fall.

The school district sent letters to parents of children in the fourth through eighth grades Friday announcing plans to close Central School at least for next year and move fifth- and sixth-graders to what is now Fifth Street Middle School where they will join seventh-graders.

Eighth-graders who normally would be at Fifth Street will join freshmen in the North Campus at the high school.

Central currently has 466 students.

Fifth Street Principal Richard Bryant will remain at that school and Central Principal Wynesther Cousins will become associate principal at the high school over the North Campus. It's a return home of sorts for Cousins, who was associate principal at the high school before being named principal at Central five years ago.

The grade configuration mirrors a set up used by the West Point district in the mid-1990s.

"We want to stress to all parents that safety is our first concern. Our engineer tells us we are good for the short-term, but until we can figure out the best plan of action, we can't risk a situation going into next year," Schools Superintendent Burnell McDonald said.

The engineer, Chris McDonald, looked at the school Tuesday as part of an inspection for other problems. He discovered structural issues in the foundation that "raised red flags."

He put conservative cost estimates at $500,000 with more realistic estimates at $800,000 to $1 million and that didn't include the entire structure or issues such as windows and other repairs.

"We have looked at the space situation at Fifth Street and at the high school and have plenty of room for this configuration. It's really just going back to the configuration used before," McDonald said. "We are trying to be proactive for student safety."

"My son went to Fifth Street when it was fifth, sixth and seventh," echoed Assistant Superintendent Tim Fowler.

Central School turns 90 this year. It was built in 1928 after a fire destroyed the former Lynch High School, which sat on the site from 1888 until it burned in 1927.

Fifteen years ago, the community funded a renovation of Central's theater, which was the centerpiece of community arts for generations. The theater remains in good shape and can still be used, school leaders said.

Administrators will hold meetings with parents at the schools "soon" to answer questions. However, many details, such as actual teacher room assignments, still are being worked out.

"We're meeting with principals, maintenance people, IT people, staff, everyone to go through everything. There's a lot of communication, a lot of planning to be done. But when it all boils down, we're still going to have fifth-grade teachers teaching fifth grade, sixth-grade teachers teaching sixth grade, the students are going to have the same teachers," McDonald explained.

"We're in better shape than if it was a fire or a tornado," Fowler added, referring to situations places like nearby Smithville and Houlka have dealt with in the last decade. "We've got time and space and staff to make it happen smoothly."

A decision on Central's future likely is months away.

"We want to get this transition done, get the budget done in June, get school opened and then we can talk to the board about cost and options. We don't even have firm estimates or anything yet. But we know it all can't be decided and done in a few months before school starts again," McDonald stated.

While safety is the driving factor, the closing will save some money in utility costs, transportation expenses, cafeteria usage and other efficiencies in the short run, although McDonald and Fowler said the administration had "not even really thought about that yet."

"That's not what is motivating this decision so we haven't really considered that, but we anticipate some savings," McDonald stated.

Parents who contacted the Daily Times Leader had a barrage of questions, most of which administrators still are working out. Some already were concerned about a piece of the city's history being abandoned or discarded. Others questioned whether the issues could be so serious.

But one of the overriding concerns raised was the neighborhood that surrounds Fifth Street. Those are questions that have persisted for years.

"My kids went to school there and I never had any concerns or worries," Fowler said of the school.

"So did mine," added McDonald.

"We understand the perception. But we have never had anything since I have been around here that hinted at anything unsafe in or around that school. It's just not right," McDonald continued, responding to the perception issue.

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