School board continues discussion on old high school

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What can be done -if anything – with the old school building on Seminary Street in Vevay?

That was the question that the members of the Switzerland County School Board continued to ask at their meeting last week, as the board continues to try and find a solution to the aging building.

The matter has been going on since 2009, when the administrative offices, which had been housed in the building, had to be relocated to the computer lab of Switzerland County Middle School due to health concerns. Since that time the corporation has used the building for storage; but even that has been reduced in recent years. Corporation employees have spent this Spring Break week removing most of the items that have been stored there.

At last week’s meeting, the board had a lengthy discussion as a part of the report by the Facilities and Grounds committee, which had held a public meeting the week before to discuss the future of the building.

“We’ve been going through this, Wilma has provided us and Mona has provided us with notes,” board member Joe Bennett said. “This has been discussed since 2009, and we started discussing it when I came on board two years ago. We’ve had three to four meetings, and we’ve had no one from the public show up. Pat (Vevay Media Group Publisher Pat Lanman) was nice enough to write an article and put it in the paper. I can tell you from my seat on the board, I didn’t receive one comment from the public since it was in the newspaper.”

With that, Bennett made a recommendation to proceed with demolition of the building, but said that he would like to hear what others had to say.

“As a board, we’ve got three or four other buildings that we have to worry about,” Bennett continued. “We hear that it’s $400,000-$500,000 just to get the building up to speed. We don’t have the money. We have East Enterprise to take care of, and we have this Vevay campus to take care of. My personal thought is taking a half million dollars, or whatever that figure is, to get that building up to speed, then we have to staff it. Who’s going to run it? Who’s going to pay for it? That’s my personal opinion. We’ve asked groups if they want to take it off of our hands, but no one’s willing to fork up the money.

Resident Nancy Barker was at the meeting on Monday, hoping to help find a way to save the structure.

“What kind of a price do you have on it?” Barker asked.

“We’ve heard in the past that it may be around $400,000 to renovate and restore it,” Superintendent Mike Jones said.

Barker asked if the board was interested in selling it.

“We tried to donate it,” Bennett responded. “It’s full of lead, sewer, asbestos, mold.”

“I’m just interested in it,” Barker said. “I’ve talked with Eddie James earlier this morning. He thought that maybe a lot of the alumni of it might be interested in it; but I checked with Karen Miller (Vevay Alumni Association), and she said that they had no money.”

Jones said that he had met with the alumni, along with Switzerland County Tourism and the Switzerland County Historical Society.

“I don’t think the school corporation in a sense wants to give up the property, because we’re going to be using the Old Gym,” Jones said. “In fact, we’re getting ready to do some work to do some foundation work. Our plan would not have been to give it away. If someone would want to step forward and help restore the building, or look for the funds to do that, I think that we’d be open to that. But it hasn’t happened yet.”

Jones said that representatives from Indiana Landmarks had been through the building, and noted that it was generally structurally sound, but there were major environmental issues.

“Wouldn’t our next logical step be to have a structural engineer and someone else who could give us the cost of totally renovating it, getting it up to code?” board president Katie Collier said. “What that cost would be, versus the cost to demolish it.”

Jones said that the corporation was having a structural engineer come and look at the foundation of the Old Gym prior to the beginning of the work on that building that he had mentioned earlier; so it may be that the engineer could also assess the old school at the same time.

“I think we need to have someone tell us exactly at this time what it would cost to fix it and what it would cost to demolish it, so we know moving forward,” Collier said.

“We’re just guessing right now,” board member Amy Combs said.

“I totally agree with Katie,” board member Jill Cord said. “We’re just throwing out these numbers, $400,000. We don’t even know what the liability insurance costs, we can’t come up with a definite number for that. I mean, we just can’t make decisions without factual information; and I just don’t feel we’ve had any, even though we’ve had meetings and been talking about it since 2009.”

Cord then continued with some comments on her thoughts about the issue.

“We had claims this month, and one of those claims was for $48,000, and that was for the irrigation of the sports practice fields,” Cord said. “I just can’t see justifying $48,000 to irrigate a field

“It’s been on our capital projects plan for three years, and it’s been before the board,” Jones said. “I guess what I would say, if you see the number of kids who use those fields in a year, I personally thought it was a good investment.”

“I used to see how other schools irrigated their fields, and they didn’t have anything as luxurious,” Cord responded. “They just had mobile units on trucks.”

“I think to keep the fields going, we’d have to do that every week,” Jones said. “Most of the places I know now do similar type irrigation.”

“But my thought is: $48,000 for that, and we’re quibbling over maybe $1,200-$1,500 for liability insurance for a building that’s been here since 1859 -158 years, I believe,” Cord responded. “I just think the old building deserves some attention.”

Other members of the school board said that they had heard that the liability insurance was much higher than that, but Jones said that Cord’s figures were based on insuring the building as a vacant structure, with no activity going on in it.

“Whether you’re talking about $1,500, or whatever it is, this insurance policy, you’re simply kicking the can down the road, with regard to a decision that needs to be made,” board member Tye Sullivan said. “Our decision can’t be based on whether we want to keep that building vacant for $1,500 a year. We need to act on doing something with that building. You guys have been talking about it since 2009. Right, wrong, or indifference, it doesn’t make sense to not move forward with some type of action on this building.”

Resident Josh South asked if the board had any future plans for the building? If it is restored and brought up to code, what would its use be then?”

“We went down a similar road with Indiana Landmarks,” South said. “They came in and took a look at our town hall and gave us some cost estimates of approximately how much it would cost. Those numbers tend to skyrocket with historical buildings, because you don’t know what you’re getting into until you tear down your first wall or tear into your first area. Does the board have any future plans to use that building? Let’s say you did renovate it 100-percent, what would you use it for?”

“I don’t know that we have a plan right now,” Jones said. “I know that when the gentleman from Landmarks came, he gave us ideas, but it was more like renting out space for not-for-profits. I don’t know that the corporation at this point has any plans.”

“Would you be interested in some type of business?” Barker asked. “More of a business deal?”

Jones said that there was also talk about the corporation using it as a museum or to house the Hall of Fame; but said that there was no definite plan.

“Speaking from a citizen’s perspective who has kids in the school corporation, I’d much rather see the dollars that are being spent in the school corporation go to programming to the buildings our students are in, rather than to keeping together a building – yes, it’s an old building with a lot of history tied to it – but we’ve got to move forward instead of looking backwards; and I honestly think that I’d rather see our money spent towards those things.”

“Is the board okay with moving forward and getting a structural engineer and whatever else we need to get an estimate for what it would cost to totally renovate it; and what it would cost for demolition?” Collier asked.

“We’re getting ready to make decisions on school books, and it’s probably not going to go over too well,” Bennett said. “And we’re going to sit here and get an engineer to tell us what a building’s going to cost?”

“We’re going to have to get some costs, because even if we decide to take it down, we just can’t go in there and bulldoze it down with all of the asbestos,” Collier said.

“I’d like to see those costs,” Combs said. “I agree. I feel like I already have my opinion, but I’d also like to have those absolute numbers in black and white before I say, ‘Yes, this is the right way to go’.”

“I think those costs are going to answer our questions,” Sullivan said.

The board decided to get those estimates together, hopefully by its next meeting in April; and should have more specific costs at that point.