It’s 70 years old and in need of repairs. Federal officials want it renovated or vacated by next year in order for the school system to continue to receive Head Start funding.
So, on Monday, the Oak Ridge Board of Education will consider what to do about the Oak Ridge Preschool, a building on New York Avenue that’s been on the repair wish list for years.
The school board will consider three options:
- stay in the building and renovate it;
- move the Preschool and its roughly 200 students to a different site, possibly by leasing space;
- move the Preschool classes and split them up among the elementary schools.
There is one option that is not on the table, school officials said Thursday.
“We have no intention…of shutting down the Preschool in any form or fashion,” said Chris Marczak, Oak Ridge Schools assistant superintendent.
That should allay the fears of some parents concerned about the future of the Preschool, with at least a few apparently worried that the federally funded Head Start program could shut down.
“Shutting down the Preschool is not even an option,” Marczak said.
Supporters intend to attend the school board meeting on Monday, November 3, and the Oak Ridge City Council meeting on November 24. They’ve also formed a Facebook page called Friends of the Oak Ridge Preschool.
Oak Ridge Schools officials say the Preschool building has reached the point where, like an old car, it’s costing more money to make repairs than the building is worth. The wooden building was built as a temporary structure in 1943, during the Manhattan Project in World War II, and it once housed the Pine Valley Elementary School.
But now it requires a lot of money to maintain. Allen Thacker, Oak Ridge Schools maintenance and operations supervisor, said the system spent about $700,000 in maintenance on the building in the past six years.
“It’s an old, tired building,” Thacker said. “It’s getting to the point where we’re putting more money into this building than it’s worth just to put another Band-Aid on it.”
One of the issues now is lead-based paint, which was popular in the 1950s. During a routine inspection earlier this year, Head Start noted the paint was chipping and flaking. Testing showed the paint has high levels of lead, and under federal guidelines, it has to be repaired, replaced, and painted, Thacker said.
But if the paint is removed, then school officials have to deal with the cemestos wallboard underneath. The wallboard contains asbestos, Thacker said.
“When you start addressing one issue, you can fall into another,” he said.
To receive Head start funding in 2015-2016, school officials need to renovate the building or vacate it. They received a one-year reprieve to solve the problems or find a more permanent solution, Thacker said.
Before spending $100,000 to fix the paint, though, school officials want to address the whole building, Thacker said. Maintenance workers have stabilized areas where students would be affected and put up silt and construction fencing to keep students away from the paint.
Other issues at the building include out-of-date plumbing—maintenance workers have had to install filters to prevent rusty water—and a substandard electrical system. There’s no insulation in the attic, a roof that’s near the end of its 20-year lifespan, and single-pane windows that don’t have tempered safety glass.
“It’s a long laundry list,” Thacker said.
He said it could cost an estimated $10.5 million to build a 25,000- to 30,000-square-foot preschool on a new site in a facility that meets Head Start and safety requirements and complies with the American with Disabilities Act. There is enough land at Blankenship Field, where the old high school was, to build a preschool, Thacker said.
The second option, moving the Preschool to a different site, would involve a lease. School officials are preparing a request for proposals for that option, Thacker said.
The third option, moving the preschool classes and splitting them among the elementary schools, could produce short-term savings but lead to greater long-term costs, especially if student enrollment increases and classroom space has to be added.
“It’s like a short-term fix,” Thacker said of the third option.
He said the options to be discussed Monday will include an outline of the pros and cons of each proposal. Monday’s meeting starts at 6 p.m. in the School Administration Building at 304 New York Avenue.
Thacker said school officials want a solution by 2015.
City and school officials have discussed the possibility of building a new Preschool and School Administration Building for years, but it’s not clear that it’s ever advanced past the discussion phase. Money has seemed to be the primary obstacle.
Now, it’s reached the point where Oak Ridge school officials question whether it’s worth pouring any more money into the Preschool building. Thacker said they want to provide a safe, healthy environment for the preschool students.
“We’re committed to finding a longer-term solution that will correct the issues with the Preschool facility,” Thacker said.
Note: Earlier this year, Anderson County, which supervises the local Head Start program, said the roughly $700,000 funding for this school year in Oak Ridge would cover about 118 students at the Preschool. Head Start is a federal entitlement program for low-income children.