Scaled-back renovation plans keep status quo of Wise schools

Stephen Igo • May 1, 2007 at 11:36 AM

WISE - An investment of at least $85 million to upgrade Wise County's six high schools will provide for the ability to maintain not much more than the status quo far into the future, debate among school board members indicated Monday.

During Monday's session of the Wise County School Board, members reviewed recommendations by four architectural and engineering firms to cut an initial $109.5 million worth of renovations to the six facilities to between $85 million and $88 million.

Mechanical improvements such as air conditioning, electrical, lighting, plumbing and technology features and new windows would be provided to five of the six facilities. St. Paul High School, which was built in the 1970s, would receive $2.4 million worth of mostly maintenance-type upgrades, or $5.9 million for more improvements, depending on what option the school board chooses.

The other five high schools - Powell Valley, J.J. Kelly, Coeburn, Pound and Appalachia - were built in the 1950s.

Big Stone Gap board member Cecilia Robinette expressed concern Monday that renovating the older structures won't further the county's long-range academic needs. Appalachia's Mark Hutchinson and Vice Chairman Kyle Fletcher of St. Paul expressed confidence the facilities can adapt to academic program changes in future years much as they have been adapted to adopt curricula changes over the last five-plus decades.

Robinette asked Bill Thompson of Wise-based Thompson & Litton Inc. - in charge of the J.J. Kelly, Coeburn and Pound projects - if the renovations would serve the county's needs 30, 40 or even another 50 years. Thompson said taxpayers can count on 20 or maybe 30 years from a heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, but otherwise future adaptations to program needs is "probably."

School Superintendent Greg Killough said the revised renovation plans, still far short of the design stage, mean the school division is "bare-boning the buildings to accommodate the programs for today."

Killough also noted that rather than figure in a 10 percent rise in student population used in the initial design recommendations, to save costs architects were advised to scale the projects back by assuming a stagnant or even declining student population in the years ahead.

Existing classroom spaces in most of the facilities are between 100 to 200 square feet undersized to current standards, and that is "a limiter for us," Killough said.

One bright feature of the architects' recommendations is to abandon the "electronic classroom" - where one or two classrooms per school are dedicated to distance learning and hardwired for all the latest technological advances - by making every classroom in the renovated high schools an "electronic classroom." That feature is included in the revised renovations plan.

Thompson told Big Stone Gap's Betty Cornett long-term academic needs were not a part of the revised plan.

"The architects say we're not upgrading to the curricula at all. We're just maintaining what we have," Cornett said. "That is not a first-grade renovation plan."

Hutchinson, Fletcher and school board Chairman Barry Nelson expressed confidence that all the facilities can adapt to a changing curricula and program needs well into the future. Hutchinson said nobody could predict future changes anyway, and Nelson likes making every classroom an "electronic classroom" so dedicated distance learning centers won't be missed.

Margaret Craft expressed concern that Pound would not be provided a suitable auditorium. Students in drama and other performing arts programs will still have to be bused to J.W. Adams Combined School for such activities.

Fletcher likes the investment in the geothermal HVAC systems slated for each of the schools. They pay for themselves over time in energy savings, Thompson told Fletcher.

"These buildings will be versatile enough to handle future technology needs," Fletcher said.

As for curricula and program changes in the years ahead, he said he couldn't see why the facilities couldn't be flexible enough, as they have been since the 1950s, to handle future changes.

Robinette continued to express concern over that issue. She brought out the fact that some teachers at many of the schools still won't have a classroom of their own, but push their carts from class to class. And Robinette said she was concerned that electives would still be problematic.

Fletcher and Hutchinson have indicated in recent months that the block scheduling system may be more of a stumbling block to a wide range of electives offered at the schools. Besides, they said students can manage only a limited number of electives in a high school career anyway.

On Monday, Fletcher said students only need to concentrate on the basic core subjects needed to get into college. He said a smorgasbord of electives, while impressive, is overrated. Fletcher added that he couldn't understand why some students study Chinese or Russian, "but they do."

"There's not enough room for multiple electives," he said.

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