Columbus Municipal School District officials said they plan to repurpose the former Hunt High School campus, which was heavily damaged by a 2019 tornado, with a significant focus on workforce development.
The EF-3 tornado that hit the city on Feb. 23, 2019, badly damaged the campus — then home to the district’s alternative school, after-school programs and an African American cultural heritage museum operated by a local nonprofit — and tore off a large portion of the roof. Now, CMSD is moving ahead with restoring the campus with improvements as well as repairs with an aim to emphasize career and technical education for students.
“This is a unique opportunity, and we want to get it right,” Superintendent Cherie Labat told The Dispatch after Thursday’s special-call meeting of the district’s board of trustees.
Labat said no decision has been made as to whether the district’s alternative school will remain at Union Academy, where it moved after the tornado, or return to Hunt. Plans are that the museum will return to the rebuilt Hunt space.
Labat said the new Hunt campus will also help contingency purposes and unforeseen circumstances. A blended learning academy with some instruction online and some in person — something Hunt called “a step into the 21st century” — is a possibility as well.
“I think we have the opportunity to do that, also,” Labat told The Dispatch.
With increasing automation and a fluctuating economy, Labat said, the district plans to place an emphasis on high-skill and high-tech training for students to meet specific needs. That includes adult education, which she said will be a part of the new Hunt campus.
“We’ve known that in order to meet the needs in the next decade from an economic standpoint that the jobs of today won’t even be the jobs of two or three years from now,” Labat said. “Some of the jobs leaving the workforce now, they’ll never come back.”
New focus could be ‘game-changer’
Labat said at Thursday’s meeting that workforce development could be a “game-changer” for students hoping to prepare for a career in a technical field.
“It’s a big step in the right direction,” the superintendent said. “It creates more options for the career pathway.”
Labat said under the new program, which is still pending community feedback, students could have the opportunity to work with companies like Paccar or Steel Dynamics for a semester and earn high school credit in the process.
“(T)he seamless part of the system is, we don’t have to do anything extra,” Labat said. “The kid just would say, ‘I want to take workforce training. I want to take this course.'”
She stressed that workforce development was a long-term district goal even before the 2019 tornado and the COVID-19 pandemic this spring.
“Now, we just have a more decisive plan, a detailed plan, a systematic plan to make it happen,” Labat said. “… We know there’s always a blessing in the burden.”
She said CMSD will work with East Mississippi Community College’s Communiversity and other post-secondary learning institutions to create the best atmosphere for the Hunt campus.
“The college readiness, preparation and workforce development that we will be able to facilitate in this building will give us a unique opportunity to not only meet the needs of our students but the needs of the community,” Labat said. “I just feel like we can create a facility to meet all those needs in one space.”
Before the district moves ahead with its plans, Labat plans to seek advice from the public and from EMCC, Mississippi University for Women, Mississippi State and other colleges and universities.
“I think them telling us what they need and us being able to provide a space where we all have a common goal will be advantageous not only for the city of Columbus but for the entire region,” she said.
CMSD also currently operates the McKellar Technology Center, which includes skill training in automotive services, carpentry, engineering and robotics and more.
Board of Trustees president Jason Spears said that the Hunt campus will be an “enhancement” to the programs McKellar offers and will offer more specialized training through EMCC and the Communiversity. It won’t replace McKellar, he said, but will rather just “make sure it continues forward.”
‘We’ve got to do everything right on the inside and the outside’
Taylor Guild III of the architecture firm Eley Guild Hardy, which has offices in Jackson and Biloxi, presented plans of the campus’ first and second floors, annex and museum to the board Thursday. The school lost its roof and 12 second-floor classrooms to the tornado.
Spears asked Guild dozens of questions about the property during the meeting, inquiring about the size of classrooms, possible ways to repurpose the annex, adding air conditioning in the gymnasium and more.
“We’ve got to do everything right on the inside and the outside,” Spears stressed to The Dispatch after the meeting. “We want to continue to put it back the way it was before but also enhance it going forward so that maybe if there was a lot of space that wasn’t used properly before, we can still have the vision of how to use it going forward.”
Spears mentioned a two-part timeline for the project: one part comprising the exterior of the Hunt campus and one made up of the buildings themselves.
He said he hopes to have much of the exterior restoration done by the end of the year but acknowledged the interior could last into next year or longer due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s limitations on how many construction workers can be inside at one time.
“There’s another storm blowing through, and that’s why we’re all sitting here wearing masks,” Spears said at the meeting, referencing the pandemic.
Labat cautioned that the timeline for completing the project is far from certain.
Recently, she said, she told Guild, “‘Taylor, hopefully I’ll be able to walk through here in two years, and it’ll be unrecognizable.'”
The architect didn’t reply.
Labat said the costs incurred by the district for the project will depend on the specific plan that moves forward. With federal and state emergency management agencies paying for 87.5 percent of the cost of infrastructure repairs and debris removal, the district will be liable to pay the remaining 12.5 percent.
The district’s own insurance agency, Wisconsin-based Middlesex Insurance Company, filed suit against CMSD in March, claiming the district requested more than $14 million in damages for repairs Middlesex estimated at $4.8 million.
Spears said he was not aware of any developments in the complaint since it was filed in Mississippi Northern District court in Aberdeen in early March.
As of March 10, Middlesex had paid the district $3,619,480.12, according to previous Dispatch recording.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.