FAYETTEVILLE — School Board members voted 6-1 Thursday to sell the former Jefferson Elementary School building, most recently used as an adult education center.
They also discussed a possible resolution to prioritize buyers who would keep the character of the building or give it a community use.
The 41,886-square-foot school was built in 1930, according to information Deputy Superintendent Megan Duncan presented in June. The school was closed in May 2006, and its 324 students were given the option of attending Washington Elementary or Owl Creek Elementary.
Since then it has been used as an adult education center. The adult education program will be relocated, and administrators are working to determine where the new location will be within district facilities, said Alan Wilbourn, district director of communications.
Converting the building into a prekindergarten through fourth grade elementary school would cost an estimated $17.8 million, Duncan said. The building would provide 19 classrooms and could serve up to 300 students, she said. It would need renovations to make it compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and to create a larger kitchen, offices for nurses and counselors and a teacher workroom.
The Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education recommends new elementary schools serve a minimum of 500 students and have at least 56,594 square feet, Duncan said. A new elementary school built of that size would cost an estimated $22.8 million, she said.
A cost breakdown shows restoring Jefferson Elementary to serve 300 students would cost approximately $59,500 per student, compared to $45,500 per student to build a new school serving 500 students.
The division also recommends new elementary schools have a minimum of 13 acres, while the Jefferson Elementary building sits on 4 acres, Duncan said. Parking, safe areas for bus drop-off and pickup, and walkability are also issues, she said.
Jefferson Elementary was appraised at $1.3 million in 2021 and $1.9 million in 2022, according to her report.
School attorney Mary Claire Hyatt said there are no legal obstacles to selling the building, as was initially thought last month.
Board member Keaton Smith proposed taking time to explore the possibility of using the building for a middle or junior high magnet school that serves the whole child, using the community school model. It could also be used to create a conversion charter middle school, which could focus on any number of topics such as computer and data science, entrepreneurship, language arts or project-based learning, he said.
There are several potential grants and funding opportunities for such a school, Smith said. Since the district is about to execute a contract with a demographer to rezone middle schools, it seems prudent to have as many options on the table as possible, he said.
It is unclear how the student capacity would be impacted by turning the building into a middle school instead of an elementary school, Duncan said. The building would still need parking, window replacement, Americans with Disabilities Act upgrades, a new kitchen, environmental assessments and a playground, although it would look a bit different at the middle school level, she said.
Other board members were not supportive of Smith’s proposal. Once the kitchen was expanded and offices for nurses and counselors were created, it would likely hold fewer than the estimated 300 elementary school students, board member Justin Eichmann said.
“We are making an $18 million facilities decision that might affect 200 to 240 kids,” he said. “The economics don’t make sense.”
Board member Megan Tullock pointed out the district has about 4,800 students in grades five through eight. There is a cost to waiting, including continuing to maintain the building, she said.
Board President Nika Waitsman said she felt it’s inappropriate to be talking about spending $18 million on a specialized school that would serve a small number of students while the district is going through the process of rezoning to create capacity.
Veronica Huff asked the board during the public comment session at the beginning of the meeting to consider alternative uses for the historic building, including a school museum or an urban garden. There are numerous grants to help pay for each of the proposed uses, she said.
Huff said Jefferson Elementary is vitally important to Black history in Fayetteville, since it’s near the city’s first Black school and the first school in the district to have a Black principal — now Superintendent John L Colbert.
The district hosted a public input session about the building and people proposed a number of community uses for the facility, Duncan said.
Board members agreed the district could only consider K-12 education uses for the facility. Board member Katrina Osborne suggested finding a buyer that plans a responsible use for the property. Hyatt said the board is not required to take the highest offer but is required to choose a fair market offer, so it would be possible to select an offer based on intended use.
Smith voted against taking steps to sell the building while board members Waitsman, Tullock, Tim Hudson, Eichmann, Osborne and Tracey Pomeroy voted in favor of the proposal.
The measure gives school administrators the authority to list the building for sale. The process will take about a month, Hyatt said. The board plans to continue discussing in August what type of buyer to prioritize.
Fayetteville School District enrollment, which was 10,349 as of last fall, is predicted to grow by approximately 1,500 students, or 14.5%, over the next five years. Holcomb and Happy Hollow elementary schools and McNair Middle School are predicted to be over capacity by the 2026-27 school year.
Source: Zonda Education