WILLIAMSTOWN - Two dozen representatives of Wood County Schools and Williamstown Elementary School toured facilities in Kanawha and Cabell counties recently to help determine the future of the elementary school.
The Williamstown Elementary School facility committee, accompanied by Wood County Superintendent Pat Law and others from the district central office, visited three schools Thursday in both new and renovated buildings. The tours were organized by ZMM Architects and Engineers of Charleston, which worked on all three schools.
ZMM officials answered questions and detailed the planning and design process for new and renovated schools. Committee members and local officials also had the opportunity to meet and speak with representatives from the state School Building Authority, which helps fund school construction and renovation projects.
Officials with Wood County Schools and Williamstown Elementary School are gathering information about options for rebuilding or replacing Williamstown Elementary.
The purpose of the trip was to help committee members decide whether the 105-year-old Williamstown Elementary should be renovated, torn down and built anew, or whether a new school should be built at a different site.
Much of the information presented during the tour followed the same theme: It's tough no matter which way you choose.
"You want to be flexible and you want to think not about today, but about 40-50 years from now" when designing a school, said David Ferguson, an architect with ZMM.
Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary School in Charleston opened in 2011 and was designed to serve about 380 students, though now its enrollment is more than 500, said Principal Mellow Lee.
While new, there's already space issues due to the influx of students, such as using areas designed for storage as classroom space, Lee said. The school also uses a combined gymnasium and cafeteria separated by a partition, which is similar to Williamstown Elementary.
The SBA does not pay for full gymnasiums for elementary schools and any such addition would have to be covered through local funds, officials said.
Unlike Williamstown Elementary, however, West Side houses a family medical clinic and a dental clinic. Lee said the school serves a high population of low-socioeconomic status and those with high medical needs.
"That health clinic has helped us tremendously," she said.
The school boasts a magnet music program and has facilities specifically designed for arts and music, as well as an in-school television studio which doubles as a classroom.
The Williamstown committee also toured the combined Southside Elementary and Huntington Middle Schools in Huntington. Two existing schools were demolished except for a center building and auditorium, which became the center piece for the two new schools. Though both share the same building and the same kitchen, students cannot move freely between the two schools and each uses a separate entrance for pick-up and drop-off times.
Cabell County Schools Maintenance Director Mike O'Dell said the project faced several hurdles, from the consolidation of schools to where to house students during the construction and renovation project.
O'Dell estimates officials and community members worked on the planning and design of the school for three years before construction even began. Actual work on the building, start to finish, took another three years, during which time students were split between two older school buildings in the district.
"Logistically it was very difficult," he said. "Looking back there were times when I'm not sure how we managed to do it."
O'Dell said when designing a school, finances will be a crucial and limiting factor.
"There's always going to be things you like to have," he said, "but the reality is you only have one pot of money. You won't be able to afford all of it."
"There is a lot of compromise that goes on with the process," Ferguson said.
O'Dell said working with an existing structure also has its challenges.
"You will run into things when you are doing a selective demolition that you will not expect," he said. "That raises the cost."
Members of the Southside Elementary/Huntington Middle School committee said communicating with community members and keeping everyone involved in the process is the most important part of planning a new school. Cabell County School Board President Suzanne Oxley, who sat on the planning committee for the schools, said the committee used public meetings, forums, newsletters and word of mouth to communicate
"That keeps the community informed," she said. "It helps them to understand what the limitations are and to get that information into the community."
"It's a lot of work, a lot of planning, but it's worth it," O'Dell said.
School Building Authority Executive Director Mark Manchin spoke with Williamstown committee members during the tour of West Side Elementary and said the SBA was eager to work with Wood County Schools on this and other projects. Manchin said he would be scheduling a visit to Williamstown Elementary to better understand the challenges and needs of the community.
The Williamstown school committee will meet at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 26 to discuss the tours and information received. The meeting will be held in Williamstown Elementary's school library and is open to the public.