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Future of Vigo's 3 main high schools must become priority, Tanoos says

Aging buildings at North, South, West eyed for replacement or renovation

Within the next several months, the Vigo County School Corp. is expected to hire an architect/engineer to study and eventually make recommendations related to the future of the district's three major high schools.

Terre Haute North and South Vigo high schools, as well as West Vigo High School, are in need of major renovation and potentially replacement, Superintendent Danny Tanoos said. "We will bring in an architect/engineer to look at the buildings to tell us what their thoughts are" on whether to renovate or replace the facilities, Tanoos said. Another option might involve new construction and some renovation of existing facilities.

Such a major endeavor would be costly and likely require a public vote, or referendum, which is required if a high school project costs more than $20 million.

The future of the high schools is a component of the Terre Haute Tomorrow community plan, and the school district would likely enlist the help of the group in seeking public support for such a comprehensive building program.

 

The top priority this year is getting the Vigo Schools Aquatic Center completed and opened around September or October, Tanoos said. But after that, the question about what to do with the aging high schools must be addressed.

He anticipates that in 2016, those discussions "will really accelerate," and an architect/engineer will present findings.

North and South opened in 1971, West Vigo High School in 1961. "They are not new schools anymore," Tanoos said earlier this week. North and South are about 44 years old and West Vigo about 54 years old. He noted the high schools they replaced were of similar age.

"We have continual maintenance problems with the three high schools, whether it be heating/cooling; single-pane windows; single-entry doors; electrical issues; classrooms that are too small for today's standards; and a lot of plumbing problems behind the walls," he said. Science classrooms "are tremendously undersized."

Tanoos said, "It's time for us to make a commitment to the future."

During Tanoos' tenure as superintendent, some older buildings have been closed, five new schools have been constructed, and several other buildings have been renovated at the elementary and middle school levels.

While Tanoos believes the high schools are well-maintained, "it's time to really concentrate on the big project of addressing North Vigo, South Vigo and West Vigo," he said. "It's time to bring in architect/engineers to study the buildings and make recommendations."

The schools' needs must be addressed, he said. "Doing nothing means we're going to have buildings that will continue to deteriorate. You don't want to get to the point where they are in such bad shape you can't hold school," Tanoos said.

If a referendum failed, "That would be a disaster for the future of high schools in Vigo County," he said. "It would be unfair to the children of tomorrow to not have high schools that meet their needs."

He favors maintaining three high schools at existing sites. A fourth high school can't be justified because of declining enrollments — which have gone down for the past 20 years, he said. Some have suggested keeping West Vigo High School and building one, new super high school to replace North and South, but Tanoos frowns on that concept.

"I would absolutely be against that," Tanoos said. "I have no desire to have a super high school" of 4,000 students. A school that large loses its personal touch and kids get lost in the shuffle, he said.

Tanoos believes there are factors working in the school district's favor that will help keep costs down. The high schools have good athletic fields that would not have to be rebuilt, although they might need upgrades. Also, if new construction is recommended, there might be parts of the existing buildings that would be useable, perhaps with upgrades, such as gyms, auditoriums and cafeterias.

Tanoos did not offer estimates on what the project might cost but indicated it would likely require a referendum and an increase in the tax rate. In the end, the goal is to have high school facilities "that will last another 50 years."

Terre Haute Tomorrow recently unveiled a 10-year-plan for the community, and one component addresses the high schools.

Norm Lowery, chairman of Terre Haute Tomorrow, says the school district has done a good job of maintaining the high schools on a limited budget, but the facilities "are getting old, and we're quickly approaching a time when maintaining them as they are will be far more expensive than entertaining the idea of new facilities."

Also, dated buildings may not be conducive to teaching students the way they should be taught to be competitive in the world marketplace, he said.

The project likely will call for a referendum and increased property taxes, and the public will have to be educated and persuaded as to the need for the building program, Lowery said.

While people who don't have children in the schools might frown on the idea, in Lowery's mind, people must look at it from this standpoint: "We're investing in the next generation or generations to come. We're investing in what they will do for our community what they will do for our country. ... We can't shortchange them."

It will be up to the school district to hire experts to recommend the best course of action. While the role of Terre Haute Tomorrow is "still to be determined," Lowery anticipates members will help advocate for the needed facility projects and referendum, if asked by the school district.

"They have to convince all of us we need to do something," Lowery said, "but I've heard enough to know we've got to do something" to address high school facilities.

"I think there are people involved in Terre Haute Tomorrow — or who will be involved — that will certainly try to help in any way they can," Lowery said.

It will be a tough process, he said, "but we can't afford not to do it."

He also noted that having good schools, and school facilities, is critical for economic development.


 
From the Terre Haute Tribune-Star
Posted: Friday, February 13, 2015
By: Sue Loughlin
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