Note: This story was last updated at 12:25 p.m.
It’s been on the city’s wish list for decades, but city and school officials now appear closer to finding a solution to repairing or replacing the city’s preschool.
Officials said they’ve “kicked the can down the road” for years, but the discussion gained urgency after lead-based paint was found on the exterior of the 70-year-old building during a routine inspection in the spring of 2014. It could cost up to $150,000 to make repairs. Officials have characterized that as a Band-Aid or “last investment.”
“We’re going to have make a decision now, unfortunately, because of the paint,” said Keys Fillauer, Oak Ridge Board of Education chair. “The bottom line is: How are we going to pay for this?”
School officials have said that repairs need to be made by the start of the next school year, or some $600,000 in Head Start funding, about 40 percent of the Preschool’s budget, could be in jeopardy.
In the meantime, the Oak Ridge Board of Education and Oak Ridge City Council have weighed several options. The primary remaining one is to lease a building on Mitchell Road in south Oak Ridge that was once used by former federal security contractor Wackenhut and WSI Oak Ridge.
But it’s not clear if that’s the only option that will be considered or recommended by the Oak Ridge Board of Education and City Council. The Oak Ridge Board of Education is expected to consider making a recommendation during a 6 p.m. meeting today (Monday, January 26).
Besides leasing or buying a building, other options have included repairing the Oak Ridge Schools’ Preschool and Robert J. Smallridge School Administration Building; building a new facility, possibly on land at the Jack Armstrong/Blankenship Field site; and splitting up the preschool among the elementary schools. The last option has been ruled out by school officials.
During a January 15 work session, Oak Ridge City Council member Charlie Hensley said he was uncomfortable considering only one option—the Mitchell Road building—and City Council member Trina Baughn pressed for more details before the community agrees to spend $4 million to $10 million that the city “doesn’t necessarily have.”
The Mitchell Road building “is solid and can be modified for school use, according to inspectors,” Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson said in a presentation during a January 15 work session with the School Board and City Council.
Watson said the Mitchell Road building, which has roughly 41,000 square feet, could be purchased for $4.5 million and remodeled for $2 million.
School officials have said they placed a request in the newspaper for proposals from building owners interested in leasing space and made calls to real estate agents, but only received one leasing proposal. The city also looked at other options, including space available at Girls Inc. in west Oak Ridge, said Allen Thacker, Oak Ridge Schools maintenance and operations supervisor.
Oak Ridge City Council member Chuck Hope said the city needs to first define what it’s trying to accomplish with the Preschool.
“Are we building a solution that will be adequate for 30 to 50 years?” Hope asked.
City Council member Kelly Callison said all Council members seem to agree that the city needs a preschool. So then the question is: How big does it need to be? Callison said.
He said local officials have been studying the problem since 1985 or earlier.
“We’ve got to quit kicking the can down the road,” Callison said.
There seemed to be consensus on that issue at least.
“This is the situation that we’ve been facing for 30 years,” BOE Vice Chair Bob Eby said.
School and city officials expect to have a remediation plan for the Preschool building by or before March 4. They’re coordinating with Anderson County Schools, which applies for Head Start funding for Oak Ridge as part of a larger application.
Tonight’s meeting starts at 6 p.m. in the Robert J. Smallridge School Administration Building, which is at 304 New York Avenue in central Oak Ridge.
City Council could consider the BOE recommendation on February 9.
Oak Ridge City Council member Rick Chinn has recused himself from the discussion because he said a family member owns a building being considered. The Mitchell Road building is owned by Richard and Shirley Chinn, according to tax records.
See the city manager’s presentation here: Mark Watson Pre-K Observations Jan. 15, 2015
More information will be added as it becomes available.