It was standing room only inside the boardroom at the School District of Pickens County Monday night when concerned Easley residents petitioned the board to reconsider the demolition of part of the old Easley High School.
The scene was tense during Monday night’s School District of Pickens County Board of Trustees meeting as approximately 65 people filled the room to express concerns over the demolition of the portion of Easley High School that was built in 1939.
The board approved the plans to convert the old Easley High School building into a new middle school during the November 2011 meeting. The plan was first presented and made public in March 2010, according to Building Program Administrator Bob Folkman.
Ten speakers including Mayor Larry Bagwell, Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation President Mike Bedenbaugh, and Pickens County Historical Society Senior Vice President Wayne Kelly addressed the board to urge preservation of the building.
Bill Robinson expressed his concern by addressing the way the British are handling the progressively leaning parliamentary clock tower known as Big Ben.
“I’m sure that the good people of Britain will tear it down and build up something in its place because it’s old and out of date,” Robinson joked. A graduate of Easley High School, Robinson said the high school has served as an important piece of the city’s history.
“Once a landmark is gone you can’t ever bring it back,” Robinson said.
Speaker after speaker explained the historical significance of the high school from their perspective and each one was followed by strong applause.
“This has been a big blow to the city of Easley,” Easley Mayor Larry Bagwell said.
“I’m here to let you know that the city of Easley is behind keeping that building,”
Jay Cassell told the board it was important to maintain the city’s historic character and prevent the “cookie cutter” look of newer buildings. Jerry Johnson asked the board to consider the sentimental and architectural importance of the building. Wayne Kelly asked the board to consider the quality of the construction and the costs that could be saved by renovating the existing 1939 building.
“Some of the students that attended school there today were walking in the very footsteps of their great grandparents,” Kelly said. “This is an opportunity to save an architectural community landmark in the city of Easley and Pickens County.”
Shannon Cassell blasted the board for not considering the demolition of the portion of the school that was built in 1979. Based on his inspection of the building, Cassell told the board the building was not structurally sound and should have been condemned. To support his claims, he provided board members with a stack of photographs documenting examples of cracking foundations and damaged floors.
After residents made their case for the preservation of the school building the room cleared and the board moved on. At the end of the meeting board member Jim Shelton suggested the board look at other options before moving forward on the demolition.
“What I’m asking for now is a reconsideration,” Shelton said. “that we consider the cost of preservation as being greater than what we see on the balance sheet.”
Shelton said that the cost of preserving the building and renovating it to fit the needs of the middle school would cost the district an additional $2.4 million.
“Let’s take another hard look at it and see what we can do,” Shelton said.
Chairman Alex Saitta disagreed adding that the problem is not necessarily the overall project cost but rather the cost of maintaining a school that size when the student population doesn’t justify it.
“The district can’t pay to run, clean and repair all the square footage it has now. The district has increased square footage by 450,000 since the start of the building program and has added zero custodians.”
Saitta said he was concerned at the start of the county’s building project in 2006 about the preservation of historic buildings and suggested the county not build any new schools but instead renovate the old ones.
“I voted against the building program the way that it was,” Saitta said. “The three Easley reps at the time that lived in Easley actually voted for it. They didn’t give my plan one bit of lick, they wanted new high schools.”
Saitta told the remaining concerned residents he wished they had been involved in the discussion earlier.
The board did not take any new action on the requests. The conversion project is set to begin in June 2012 to be completed by June 2013.