A pronounced entrance way, flexible spaces, better ventilation and lighting, and a separate auditorium and gym were common threads at the school district’s first community forum seeking input for the renovation of Lee Middle and High School held recently at the Early Childhood Center.
Seven classrooms and the psychologist’s office were destroyed during a roof collapse at 1335 Lee St. SW on June 5. No one was injured. It was determined that corrosion of bar joists that supported the roof structure caused it to disengage from the exterior wall.
On June 23, the remaining structure of the affected area collapsed from the weight of the debris. With localized repairs, the remaining portion of the building was ready for opening day as planned on Aug. 19.
Two more forums will be held, on Oct. 9 and Nov. 4 at Lee Middle and High School. The board plans to vote on design plans on Nov. 11.
The design phase will take place through May, and construction is planned to begin next summer.
The forum is the first of three sessions to get feedback from the community and to create a renovation plan.
Superintendent Kevin Polston said the forums will build on each other.
“We need folks to keep coming because we want the community’s voice to be represented in the final product,” he explained. “This is a community project.”
There are two phases: Phase 1 is redesigning the wing affected by the roof collapse, and Phase 2 involves planning other portions of the building.
Although a financial offer from the insurance company hasn’t yet been made, Polston said the process moves on.
“We’re trying to be patient with that … and we’ll keep the community in the loop,” he said. “I really want to credit our students and staff at Lee. We made the best of the situation, and our students were very patient finding new rooms and not having a locker in the first couple weeks.”
Polston reiterated that the site is safe during construction.
“There are fire walls and locked doors preventing students and anybody from accessing the affected area. Our contractors for plumbing, electrical, fire suppression and technology are designing how to reroute the infrastructure so we can demolish the wing.”
The wing is planned to be demolished in the next six weeks and “won’t impact our school, the learning environment,” Polston explained.
Creating A Vision
After the presentation, which included site information and a look at design trends by architectural/engineering firm TowerPinkster, community members took part in small group discussions.
Common themes included having flexible spaces, classroom connectivity, comfortable furniture, natural and better lighting, a comfortable learning environment that includes better ventilation and air conditioning, a dedicated auditorium for the arts, and a cafeteria separate from the gym.
Two other popular ideas were to build a pronounced, inviting entranceway — “a new opportunity to embrace people,” a community member said — and a courtyard open to other areas of the building.
“The feedback really resonated with what we’re trying to do; it’s about creating a vision for what the school could be and that’s exactly what we needed,” Polston said. “We had staff, community members, parents; a good cross-section of the community. Even though we didn’t have a high turnout, I think the representation was what we were hoping for.”
Other feedback included:
- Safe and secure entrances
- Flexibility to change with trends and needs
- TVs throughout to inform and update
- ADA accessibility
- Include student input
- Community needs to own the redesign
- Transparency: what’s going on and why?
Meetings Eased Fears
Cecilia Garcia, a mother of four students, said she’s attending the meetings to make sure they’ll get an updated and modernized building.
“This one has a lot of issues,” she said. “I have three kids in high school and they always complain that it’s too hot in there and they can’t concentrate during class. I want to keep updated as to what’s going on.”
Right after the collapse, Garcia said she was worried about the building and tried to transfer her kids to another district, but was too late to enroll them.
She said her worries have eased since going to the meetings.
Board of Education trustee and parent Jackie Hernandez, who has two children in middle school, said she wants to make sure they deliver clear, understandable information to the community.
She said one of the primary things her children want is air conditioning.
“It’s very hot in the school,” said Hernandez, who wants access to technology included in the new design, and to make sure a school is built with the future in mind.
Polston said he has met with legislators multiple times, including with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recently to tell their story and get support. He told those at the forum that the community’s voices are being heard.
Polston said the district is asking for stabilization funds for a year to avoid added pressure on the budget if enrollment falls below projections — which is possible if fears about the collapse prompt some to transfer out of the district.
“We’re monitoring enrollment closely to determine if that would be a solution for us,” he explained.
The district also is pushing for a structural fix for the inequity of school funding.
“A district like ours that has the second-lowest tax base in the state of Michigan on a per-pupil basis … we’re about tapped out as to what we can levy,” Polston said. “When we look at equity for our students, the kids that need the most, unfortunately, tend to get the least in the state of Michigan.
“Our students deserve the same opportunities, the same access that students anywhere do.”
With the limited funding, Polston said one possibility is a capital campaign to seek donations.
As with the mascot change last summer, the board said they wouldn’t use general funds, and to date have raised over $120,000 in community donations toward that effort.
“We’re going to keep having those conversations to see if we can raise private money to match what the community can raise,” Polston said. “The worst they can tell me is no; I take rejection well.”