Kingsport Times-News: Hawkins BOE ponders closing Keplar versus $2 million in renovations

Hawkins BOE ponders closing Keplar versus $2 million in renovations

Jeff Bobo • Mar 12, 2018 at 9:58 AM
ROGERSVILLE — It will cost at least $2 million to renovate Keplar Elementary School, leaving Hawkins County school board members asking themselves Thursday if the better option might be to close the 68-year-old facility and bus its 100 students to Rogersville.

Consulting structural engineer Steve Wilson told the Board of Education’s Budget Committee Thursday that although Keplar is safe, there’s quite a bit more in need of repair than the roof, which is scheduled for replacement in 2018-19.

The original section of the school, located about eight miles south of Rogersville on Burem Road, was built in 1950 and an addition in 1960.

Two years ago, the BOE had a heated discussion about the possibility of closing Keplar, as well as McPheeters Bend Elementary, due to high upkeep costs considering the number of students served, and the expensive impending renovation projects.

There was a massive community outcry, and school closure discussions ceased. 

But the time is approaching for the BOE either to find the funding to repair Keplar or to come up with an alternative plan.

What projects are already scheduled at Keplar?

A $215,000 roof for the older section of the school is slated for 2018-19.

Other Keplar projects in the five year capital outlay plan include a $200,000 sewer treatment plant; $173,000 for a new kitchen floor, supports and concrete; $200,000 for filter plant renovations; and $51,000 for a secured entrance.

What problems did the structural engineer uncover?

Among the school’s structural problems reported by Wilson were:

* A significant sag in the roof framing in the southeast corner of the original building.

Wilson said, “ ‘Failure’ is a strong word, but definitely some significant deformations in some of the roof structural frame members, and there is a large depression in the roof.”

* Deformations and sags in the floor framing system.

Wilson noted, “There’s nothing at Keplar that told me to shut the building down (due to safety concerns). I didn’t find anything remotely unsafe.”

“It is a well maintained school,” he added. “There’s a lot of pride in that school. They take care of it. Your system obviously takes care of it. But from a structural perspective, it would be best to call it fair. At worst, call it poor. Nothing imminent.”

To maintain Keplar at least 10-15 years more Wilson recommends:

* Remove all damaged roof framing members. Add new joists, framing members, decking, membrane and insulation for an estimated cost of $455,000.

Wilson said, “If you’re going to do that, I don’t think you want to attempt it from a structural, surgical retrofit, remediation point of view. That would be ‘penny wise and dollar foolish.’ If you start surgically repairing one area, you’re just going to expand that original building into replacing and reframing the roofing system.”

* Remove the floor joists and replace them for an estimated $280,000.

Wilson said, “If we’re going to the expense of retrofitting the roof, we ought to give them a real floor framing system and a real occupancy-adaptable load capacity. ... It’s certainly lasted longer than I’ve been alive, but there are a lot of bumps and bruises, even in the floor framing system. There’s a lot of deflections, unlevel floor, undulations in the floor, and there have been some movements. We would recommended the replacement of that framing system.”

* Remove and replace the roof over the gym and cafeteria, for an estimated $100,000.

Wilson said, “You’ve got a pretty long span, and you’ve got really tall walls. And they’re multi-width brick, and there is some cracking on the south end. ... Come back with steel bar joist, metal deck and membrane — an insulated-type system.”

* On the newer, north end addition that is bar joist, strong consideration ought to be given to re-skinning and re-membraning that roof for an estimated $180,000.

What happens to the students if the renovation is approved?

If the building is renovated, the BOE would have to either shuttle students to JRP and Hawkins Elementary or adopt the more expensive option of renting 4-5 mobile double classrooms for about $40,000 each annually to be located on campus.

The renovation project would take up to two years to complete.

Are there any other options?

Including other Keplar projects in the five year plan, the cost of totally renovating the school was estimated in excess of $2 million, not including the cost of plumbing upgrades, new lights and fixtures, and making it ADA compliant.

BOE Chairman Bob Larkins noted that with such a hefty price tag to renovate a 60- 70-year-old building, the board should compare that amount to the cost of building a new school.

Wilson said a 19,000-square-foot new school comparable to Keplar would cost about $3.8 million, assuming they used the same land.

Is closing Keplar a possibility?

The third option discussed is closing Keplar and busing its students to Joseph Rogers Primary and Hawkins Elementary in Rogersville.

That would amount to adding one classroom per grade to those schools, and Director of Schools Steve Starnes said there is enough classroom space at JRP and Hawkins Elementary to accommodate 100 Keplar students. 

“If they can handle 100 students, we’ll just send 100 students there,” Larkins joked, acknowledging that such a statement could create another public outcry of opposition.

In all seriousness, however, Larkins noted that in light of the county’s financal situation he highly doubts whether the Hawkins County Commission will approve funding for a new school or the renovations recommended by Wilson.

New construction would take an estimated two years as well.

“If you shuttle students for two years to these schools, they probably will become acclimated to going to these schools,” Larkins said.

Board member Holly Helton said, “It’s not popular, but it’s what we may have to do. If we have rooms at the other two schools for these children, it makes more sense (to close Keplar).”

What are the political ramifications?

Larkins asked, “Do you spend $2 million on a 70-year-old school, or do you transfer them? That’s a tough one. You take his (Wilson’s) numbers, and you start adding the soft money on top of that. With plumbing, electrical, I think that could get over $2 million real quick, and you’ve still got a 70-year-old building. Anything you do isn’t going to be good, and I think the county commission will be reluctant to give us any money for a renovation. We can’t get a bond because of our financial situation. What happens is those commissioners representing that community will take their (pro-school advocates) side, but yet they won’t fund you any money to do what you need to do. We need $2 million to keep it open, but they’ll vote against that.”

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