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Safety concerns a big reason for new Fairmont

April 3rd, 2007 11:27 pm by SAM WATSON

JOHNSON CITY - While Fairmont Elementary School has several physical problems that staff members say warrant a new school, nothing concerns them more than security issues associated with having multiple buildings on an open campus.

"We need a new building to make it safe for our children," first-grade teacher Pam Moody said Tuesday. "We are in an open school, so kids have to go outside all the time. We have to keep our classroom doors locked at all times.

"We need it so that it makes it more safe and a more positive learning environment. We try to make it as positive as we can, but you can only do so much."

On Monday, Johnson City Director of Schools Richard Bales asked the Board of Education to replace Fairmont with a new building as part of a larger facilities improvement plan. Looking toward further deliberation and input, the board approved the plan in concept for discussion with the City Commission.

With costs estimated at $14 million, the new school would be erected on a playground up a hill from existing structures. At 13.2 acres, the campus is large enough to accommodate a new facility about the size of the city's Woodland Elementary School, Fairmont Principal Carol McGill said Tuesday.

Completed in 1959, Fairmont is Johnson City's oldest elementary school. New classroom buildings and a new gymnasium opened in the early 1990s as the city began a comprehensive building program that would replace or upgrade all eight elementary schools over several years.

McGill said when compared to the city's newer facilities, her school still has numerous deficiencies, particularly in the oldest buildings: outdated plumbing and bathroom fixtures, leaky canopies, cramped foyers and rusty door frames. Some exterior walls in the oldest buildings are made of fiberboard, and when they crack, air and moisture flow into classrooms.

Many of the school's restrooms and foyers are too small for wheelchair access, leaving just two classrooms that meet requirements for students with disabilities, and the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system is reaching the end of its life.

Two of the school's newer buildings are plagued with moisture and mildew, necessitating what McGill described as "mammoth dehumidifiers." The old water pipes often burst, usually during cold weather, forcing repairs to plumbing and sidewalks.

As Lake Ridge Elementary School opened in 1998, the school board closed Annie Wilder Stratton Elementary School and moved many of its students and teachers to Fairmont during citywide rezoning. Though Stratton was nearly 30 years older than Fairmont, the newer school's facilities surprised some teachers who made the move.

"Stratton was in better condition than this school is," kindergarten teacher Nancy Hodges said Tuesday.

Along with providing Fairmont students with conditions equitable to those enjoyed by students in the city's other elementary schools, McGill said, a new school would mean a fully enclosed facility.

Fairmont is a "Florida campus," a school composed of several buildings connected by outdoor walkways, so students must travel outside to reach the library, cafeteria, gymnasium and offices during inclement weather. The style was in vogue when the city built Fairmont, Science Hill High School and Towne Acres Elementary School in the late 1950s and 1960s. Towne Acres, however, has a cluster of three classroom pods that have since been enclosed with security fencing.McGill said enclosing Fairmont's more extensive footprint would prove more difficult, and for her, the bottom line is "safety, safety, safety," given the potential for security breaches in the modern world."We have 10 different buildings, and students have to walk between areas," McGill said. "They never walk alone. They are always with an adult or in a group. We go to extensive methods, but it's still hard to secure a campus that you can't just lock four doors."As he recommended the Fairmont replacement, Bales said administrators had discussed ways to expand and renovate Fairmont, but none of the ideas would provide the dramatic improvements of a new facility.McGill said unlike renovation, erecting a new building could take place without moving students or disrupting classes, since the proposed construction site is large enough to accommodate a school and is located up the hill from existing buildings.The city could fence off the construction site from other areas, she said, and work crews could access it from Brentwood Drive at the rear of campus."There wouldn't be any problem with keeping students away from harmful objects or trucks delivering, because they have the back area," McGill said.The principal said while many of Fairmont's existing buildings could be razed, providing room for additional play space, administrators had discussed the possibility of salvaging some of the newer structures, perhaps for preschool programs.

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