Herbert Hoover High students and elementary pupils in that area are ending a second school year in temporary classrooms Friday, the last day of classes for Kanawha County schools on a traditional calendar.
State School Building Authority officials have projected it’ll be two more school years before a new elementary school building is finished and three more before a new high school building is done.
The planned consolidated Bridge/Clendenin Elementary is expected to open in the fall of 2020, and the new Hoover in the fall of 2021, according to SBA staff’s report to lawmakers last week during a legislative interim meeting.
The former buildings for Clendenin Elementary and Hoover closed after damage from the June 2016 flood. Hoover students are in portables right next to Elkview Middle, while both Clendenin Elementary and Bridge Elementary students are sharing both the still-open Bridge building and adjacent portables.
The day after the meeting, House of Delegates Communications Director Jared Hunt said outgoing House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, whose district includes the schools, sent the SBA’s timeline documents to MaryAnn Tierney, regional administrator for Federal Emergency Management Agency Region III, state Schools Superintendent Steve Paine and state Military Affairs and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary Jeff Sandy.
“I, along with the parents of the students affected, are concerned by the length of time indicated by these documents,” Armstead wrote in an accompanying letter to those leaders. “Students in this area have been through a tremendous ordeal and it is essential that we provide them access to the completed classrooms as quickly as possible. Accordingly, I would request that you have your organizations review the timeframes attached to this letter to identify areas where the process can be expedited.”
Clendenin Mayor Shana Clendenin said Thursday that “people stayed after the thousand-year flood, rebuilt their homes, kept their families and now what they’re dealing with is property values dropping because there is no school, so it’s an ongoing frustration for everybody in the area. We should be further along than we are.”
But Charles Wilson, the Kanawha school system’s executive director of facilities planning, and Ben Ashley, the SBA’s acting director of school planning and construction, despite each saying their schedules are based on “worst-case scenarios” indicated Thursday that it’s unlikely that the schools can open earlier.
Wilson said even if there are no protected bat species discovered in the area, the projected Hoover completion date would be in March of 2021 rather than in August or September of that year. He doesn’t expect Hoover to be able to open a full school year earlier in any case.
“We’re in 2021, as far as the high school goes,” he said. “Will it be earlier in the year or later in the year? That’s to be determined.”
Wilson said various agencies control various approvals and “there’s a sequential process here that you can’t really call the window company and say we need our windows sooner than all the other schools being built that need windows. So it’s really hard to squeeze the construction schedule.”
He said the only real way to squeeze the design schedule would be to have less input from educators.
Any extra months gained by earlier completion, Wilson said, would most likely not mean students moving in earlier, but would instead be used for more preparation time to start using the building. But he said “that’s someone else’s call.”
Ashley said Thursday the earliest he could see completion moving up from what he presented is six months.
“That’s still February or March of 2021 and that’s not really the start of the school year and that’s if there are no bats found,” he said of Hoover. “And if we don’t run into weather delays or any other kind of delays.”
He later said students might be able to move into the new Hoover at the start of the spring semester of the 2020-21 school year, but said that’s a “big what-if.”
“We’re doing everything we can to push the timelines to shorten them,” Ashley said.
Dan Stoneking, external affairs director for FEMA Region III, wrote in an email that FEMA just received Armstead’s letter Wednesday.
“We are currently reviewing,” Stoneking wrote. FEMA is expected to fund the vast majority of the rebuilds.
Sen. Ed Gaunch, R-Kanawha and a co-chairman of the Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding, which received the SBA report, noted last week that Hoover is also in his district.
“It’s going to be, it looks like, five years from the flood to when these new students can get into that high school,” he said. “And [Hoover Principal Mike] Kelley’s right, the community is antsy, they want to see some dirt moving, they want to see something happening that gives them hope that they’re going to have a new high school.”
Gaunch is running for re-election to the Senate; Armstead has said he might seek another office in the future.
Sen. Glenn Jeffries, D-Putnam, asked SBA officials whether, in hindsight, anything could’ve been done to speed the projects up. Mike Hall, an SBA assistant director of school planning and construction, expressed doubt.
“Could we have maybe pushed a little harder? Maybe,” Hall said. “But it seemed like every time that we pushed we may have gotten the cart before the horse a little bit in the federal government’s eyes.”
He noted that there’s a FEMA audit of the process that will happen years down the road, and “we want to make sure that we don’t have an issue.”