With cost estimates still unclear, Columbus Municipal School District plans to move ahead with renovating Union Academy by mid-April.
School officials said the district is still negotiating with its insurance company, Sentry, on how much the policy will provide toward cleanup. Because of those negotiations, neither Superintendent Cherie Labat nor architect Major Andrews, who is planning the renovations, would release the project’s cost estimates on Thursday.
CMSD Board of Trustees President Jason Spears said the district would use funds from the district’s $2.3 million “savings account” to offset initial costs while awaiting insurance money. The board created that fund in February for capital improvements, just weeks before an EF-3 tornado caused minor damage at several campuses and destroyed much of the roof at the R.E. Hunt campus where Columbus Success Academy (alternative school) and myriad other afterschool programs were housed.
Board members met with Labat at Union Academy — located at 1425 10th Ave. N. — Thursday for a tour of the building and to hear a report on the scope of needed repairs. CMSD has not used the campus since 2008 but plans to move the Success Academy there, along with other programs that were housed at Hunt, by August. CSA students were moved to the high school after the storm, where they will remain for the rest of the school year.
Union Academy, once renovated, will also serve as a contingency school to relocate students if another campus is damaged in the future.
“We are going to make this (Union Academy) a vibrant and colorful school,” Labat said. “There’s a lot of history here.”
The first step is getting the building “operational” and “effective.”
Andrews, who spoke to The Dispatch on Thursday afternoon, said the largest costs will go toward mechanical issues, such as heating and cooling units. Spears pointed out the majority of the work would be roof repairs, fixing the awning on the front of the building, identifying and fixing the water leaks as well as a “good, hard cleanup.”
While board members walked through the halls of Union Academy Thursday morning, each pointed out water stains on the floor, broken tiles and windows that needed to be repaired and walls that needed to be painted.
“To be honest, I was pleased with what I saw,” board member Fredrick Sparks said. “It’s good we still have the building and it can really bring back some more life to this area.”
The initial focus, Labat said, would be to add security details. During the tour, board members noticed a back door with glass shattered. Labat said adding video cameras would be one of the first steps to prevent people from breaking into the facility.
Even with minor roof damage and floor damage throughout the school, board members were generally impressed with the shape of the facility that hasn’t housed students in more than a decade. Originally, Union Academy was built on Ninth Avenue shortly after the Civil War and was the first public school for African Americans in Columbus. The school moved to its current location in 1903 and was rebuilt in 1962. It housed first through sixth grade students until 2008.
“To be this old, it looks like the district has maintained the building really well,” board member Telisa Young said. ” I think it’s a phenomenal idea and we needed this space.”
While board members walked along the outside of the building, Samantha Koger called out from the front porch of her house.
“I’m so glad to see y’all are doing something with this school,” Koger said. “My entire generation went to this school. Y’all have the parents’ support. I miss seeing those kids hollering out there. It’s good to see something will finally be going on over here.”
Koger sat on her decorated porch with her manicured lawn and planters. For the past 20 years, she has walked along the school’s property picking up trash from passersby and pulling weeds.
“You see my yard, I just like for things to look nice,” Koger said. “I stay cleaning. I go over there when I see people throw paper. I’m just glad this is being put to good use.”
Koger’s family attended both Union Academy and R.E. Hunt High School. After hearing about the damage done to Hunt, Koger said she could not believe it. But her son, who attended Union, told her CMSD was planning to rebuild Hunt and reopen Union Academy.
“I was devastated to hear about what the tornado did,” Koger said. “It really hits you hard, but buildings can be replaced. I’m just so happy to see these doors open again.”
After talking with Koger, Labat said rebuilding and reopening a facility not only helps students, but surrounding citizens as well.
“I think sometimes we can’t quantify the relationships built in a community by a school,” Labat said. “It is important that we recognize the historical significance of how Union Academy has positively impacted the community. Samantha’s story is compelling and she randomly called us out. Everybody in that community has a story like that. It may be different to different people, but it’s about the relationships built.”
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