Chickamauga, a town that revels in tradition and its historic past, now faces a situation that could forever change its appearance.
Gordon Lee High School, which school superintendent Melody Day accurately describes as “the heart of the town,” requires renovations that go beyond a cosmetic facelift. Or not.
Less than a month after gathering in the school’s gymnasium to share in celebration of Gordon Lee High’s annual academic honors ceremony, current and former students returned to hear what fate might befall their school.
“No decision has been made,” Day told a crowd of well over 100, but she described how age has caught up with the beloved main academic building.
The 85-year-old building is well-maintained — its floors gleam and at sunrise its brick facade still glows — but its infrastructure fails to meet 21st-century standards.
Plumbing, or the lack of plumbing, has been a prime issue for years, restrooms are too few and far between, and upgrading for technologies unthought-of of when the when the Main Building, Olive Lee Building and Tom Lee Building were constructed in 1930 has been difficult.
The school’s faculty and staff in early April were advised that major structural changes were possible at GLHS. That, combined with preparations being made to install a new roof on the adjacent Chickamauga Elementary School, had led to rumors about the high school facing the wrecking ball.
The public meeting Tuesday night, June 2, was to dispel rumors and offer an overview of what the school board faces regarding the campus’ core.
“We’re not making a decision tonight,” school board chairman Corky Jewell said to open the meeting.
Jewell said some of the information shared at the meeting was being made public for the first time. That is not because it was a secret but because data is just now being collected as no architectural or engineering testing was permitted during the final months of the academic year.
Graduation for the Class of 2015 was held Friday, May 29.
Day said that every five years all schools in Georgia undergo a facilities review.
Except for the state fire code, GLHS fails to meet current building codes, which is something it would be required to do if major modernization was undertaken on the existing structure.
The superintendent said the school board has three options regarding the building: do nothing, undertake a major renovation, or build a new school. Of those, doing nothing is not acceptable, she said.
That means that either the current building is gutted and rebuilt inside its red brick shell or a totally new structure is erected in its stead. Either way, the “new” school would be required to meet all current building codes.
Day said there are pros and cons for each approach.
Rough estimates are that a renovation would cost about $9 million to make the building useable for another 40 years, a required time frame if state money is used for the project. Construction of a totally new building would be about $10 million for a modern, energy-efficient and code-compliant building.
A total building rehab would maintain the exterior appeal. That and that alone would seem to be its major advantage.
The lack of handicap access to the second story would make installation of elevators a necessity should renovation be chosen. But no steel girders were used when the building was constructed in 1930 so the second floor of an otherwise totally renovated building would not be considered structurally sound for classroom use.
With renovation there is also the possibility of dealing with unknowns, something Day illustrated by recounting redoing the art room’s floors several years ago. What was to have cost about $600 turned into a $6,000 project due to discovery of rotten sub-floors and framing.
Also, remodeling would further reduce square footage available for classrooms, as new restrooms for girls and for boys would be required on each level of each building.
From a financial point of view, the best option is to tear down and rebuild.
The Chickamauga school system is graded as the eighth poorest in Georgia and would qualify for favorable “low wealth” state funding if the current building is replaced, the superintendent said.
The district would use its $2.8 million in annual ESPLOST (educational special-purpose local-option sales tax) revenue for items not covered by Department of Education programs. The state would pay for construction by providing interest-free financing from the amounts usually earmarked for low wealth districts.
The greatest drawback to having a new building is just that: it would be new.
But Day said she had verbal assurances that the exterior facade could be — and would be — exactly replicated.
1953 GLHS graduate Claudette Morrison, a founding member of the school’s alumni association and who served five principals as the school’s secretary, asked only one thing.
“I understand that we have serious problems with our building,” she said. “ I only ask that the board seeks help from an architect familiar with historic preservation.”
Others, many with four generations who had attended Gordon Lee High, expressed similar sentiments regarding their school and this downtown Chickamauga landmark,.
“We do not intend to build a glass-and-steel monstrosity to take the place of our current school,” Jewell said.
The head of the school board said it is possible that the high school could be made better while making it look the same.
No decision has been reached, but the system is following the necessary procedure to qualify for the state funding that would make new construction possible.
The building will be studied through the summer. On Aug. 14 a proposal for state funding must be prepared. The school board in November or December will decide on a detailed plan of action for presentation to state officials. On Feb. 14, 2016, the state Department of Education will either approve or deny funding the Gordon Lee High School project.
It a new school is built, it will be constructed in front of the current three main buildings. Such a plan would permit use of the old structure until the new one is ready for occupancy.
The preliminary proposal would cause the loss of some parking on the “horseshoe” entrance driveway but those spaces would be regained at the stadium’s parking lot when the current building is demolished.
Because modern codes require each building having its own dedicated restrooms, having one new building rather than connecting three separate buildings would increase total square footage for class and office space.
“We’d gain about 10,000 square feet by consolidating the three into one,” Day said.
The design process is ongoing. Another public meeting will be held to allow the public to ask questions about the proposed changes to the school.
"I think Gordon Lee High School is the most beautiful high school I have ever seen," Day said. “No one wants to tear down the old school.”
No one likes to hear about a tax increase, but the superintendent delivered that bit of unwelcome news during the meeting.
Day said Chickamauga’s schools now receive about $750,000 annually in what is termed equalization funding, money that helps less well-heeled districts provide services available in larger tax-supported school system.
But it is necessary to have an effective millage rate of 14 mils to qualify for those equalization funds, something Chickamauga schools were prepared for — just not now.
“Our rate is at 12 mils and without an increase the system loses that money,” Day said. “I bet you’re even more depressed than when you first came in.”