JACKSONVILLE — In 1998 Jacksonville High School moved to a new building in the southern part of town, leaving behind a campus it had used for 50 years at Jacksonville State University.
The old campus required costly repairs to keep it usable and would have required more as the years went by. The new facility was almost twice as big as the old, built to hold 1,000 students.
As students and teachers settled into the new structure, residential development sprung up around it and new subdivisions grew. At the same time, the old building, prized by many generations of residents, became the victim of arson and vandalism. It was eventually demolished.
The Jacksonville school board is again poised to replace an aging school — Kitty Stone Elementary — atop university property, and officials are again eyeing property in the southern part of town for the project, but they are also considering rebuilding the school at its current site. The board on Tuesday will vote to decide where to place a new elementary school. Several community residents want to keep Kitty Stone where it is, in the hope of saving it from the same fate as the last Jacksonville High School.
School board members have held two public work sessions regarding the matter, during which they listened to residents’ opinions about where the next elementary school should be built.
“The people that have written letters and spoken out we certainly respect their opinions and they have been heard,” Superintendent Jon Paul Campbell said. “We have have been gathering even additional information this week in response to the questions that were brought up at the public meeting.”
Campbell said since the last meeting board members have investigated several of the residents’ concerns and ideas. These include the cost difference between renovating and building; the cost difference between transporting students to the current location and the location near the high school; constructing a new school at a third suggested location, 20 acres southeast of the square near Louise Drive; and finding emergency shelter for students who would be taught in portable classrooms if the board were to renovate at Kitty Stone.
He said they found that the 20-acre plot is too far from existing water and power connections to be a viable option, for financial reasons; that an opinion from the Calhoun County EMA revealed the options for emergency shelter at the current campus would be limited during a renovation; and that there is little or no cost difference between building and renovating.
“The estimate is that it will be roughly the same cost to renovate at Kitty Stone as building at the new location,” Campbell said, adding that the estimates were done by the board’s architect, Walter T. McKee of McKee and Associates Architecture and Interior Design. The estimated cost of the project, whether it at the current Kitty Stone campus or at the alternate site, would be $11 million.
At a recent public hearing McKee told the board that the site near Jacksonville High School would be the better place for the new school. He said the school’s campus should be at least 16 square acres and that the Kitty Stone campus is one acre short of that, while the public land available near the high school comprises about 65 acres.
School board members have said they will base their decision primarily upon what is in the best interest of the children. They have said the town’s history, the effect on the square and public opinion will be a consideration, but it will be a secondary consideration.
One resident who doesn’t want to see the elementary school moved is Klaus Duncan, who retired from teaching at the old Jacksonville High School shortly before it was demolished. He said that when the high school moved away from the center of town, the community lost part of its identity.
“There are so many reasons we ought to maintain Kitty Stone where it is,” Duncan said.
Duncan suggested moving sixth-grade students at Kitty Stone elementary to the middle school section at the high school, and rebuilding Kitty Stone at its current site in phases. He said the current campus is surrounded by existing infrastructure — including sidewalks — that the alternate location does not have.
Campbell said there is not room in the existing middle school section for more students there. The idea of adding more space there has been dismissed by the board because it would run counter to its long-term goal of separating middle and high school students, he added.
The current Kitty Stone campus is within walking distance of Jacksonville’s Public Square. The campus is dotted by large oaks and surrounded by old neighborhoods and sidewalks.
The other proposed location for the elementary school is at the southern end of the city, across the street from Jacksonville High School and down the road from Walmart. That area will soon be home to a new municipal safety complex, which will house police headquarters, a fire station and a courtroom that will double as a community storm shelter. Several popular subdivisions are also nearby.
Rena Comisac operates The Quality Shoppe on the Public Square, and has been one of the most vocal proponents of keeping the elementary school.
Speaking at her shop Friday, she said her two children attend Kitty Stone, where she had been a student herself, and where her father, now 82, once played basketball in the gym.
“It’s important to me as a business owner to see the city center of Jacksonville vibrant and successful,” Comisac said. “It’s important to me as a citizen also.”
Comasiac said the city’s Public Square is what makes Jacksonville unique and draws people to the city. She added that it’s important for the city and its schools to appreciate that as a strength, and to capitalize on it.
If the school moves southward the current campus is boarded up, she said, the move could lead to a general abandonment of the center of town. Comisac pointed out that even if the school isn’t relocated, the departure of the police and fire departments from the heart of town still will take a toll.
Joseph Munster also thinks the school should stay put.
Munster lives in the old Profile Mill Village, a neighborhood of homes within walking distance of the school. He has no children at Kitty Stone, but he still considers the issue important.
An advocate for his neighborhood and historic preservation, Munster said he thinks the Kitty Stone campus will deteriorate into a center for criminal activity and be lost due to neglect if the school system doesn’t renovate the site or build a new school there.
“It’s vital to the future development of our city,” Munster said. “So do we want the future of our city to be centered around a big-box store in Walmart, or do we want the center of our town to be the square that everybody loves?”
Some have also said Kitty Stone is in a better location for low-income and minority families, including some neighborhoods near the mill village, whereas the new location would be farther from their neighborhoods, making it harder for them to get to class.
“I don’t really see how it would affect any population no further than what we’re talking about moving, because those same students go to the high school” Campbell said. “We provide transportation.”
Munster also said public sentiment has mounted against the move.
“There has been no public support for this measure,” he said. “If there is, they haven’t spoken up.”
Paul Beezley, father of a seventh-grade daughter who attended Kitty Stone until last year, is also opposed to moving the school.
“How much more can we lose in this town and why are we moving everything out behind Walmart when we need to make what we have better,” Beezley said. “It’s smarter to make that investment in town.”
Beezley lives in a neighborhood across from Jacksonville State University. He said his neighborhood is in transition and more and more students are moving out of it.
If the school moves further away, he said, he thinks it will further change his neighborhood and drive down the property values.
Of 10 people questioned while waiting in carpool lines to collect their children or grandchildren at Kitty Stone on Friday, seven favored keeping the school in place, two were undecided and one wanted to move the school.
Robert Schaffer sat outside Kitty Stone in a carpool line Friday waiting to pick up his grandchildren, and said he thinks the alternate location would be better.
“They have to move or fix the problem,” he said of the backed up traffic.
At the Kitty Stone campus cars line up on College and Spring streets each afternoon, and a police officer directs the traffic.
Other parents said they either didn’t know enough about the situation to comment, or they were indifferent to the school board’s decision. One of those with mixed feelings said her family lived closer to the alternate location, but she is comfortable with the current site.
Many more said they can’t imagine Kitty Stone in any other location.
“I’d hate to see it just sitting here,” said Christy Warren, sitting in her car on Spring Street waiting in the line of vehicles there to pick up students. “It’s beautiful.”
Campbell said he will give a brief presentation at the board’s Tuesday meeting, after which the public will have 10 minutes to provide comments. The meeting will be held at 4 p.m. in the central office boardroom by Kitty Stone.
Staff writer Laura Gaddy: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.