Alamance-Burlington school board members put on their thinking caps this week to consider a possible renovation of Sellars Gunn Education Center – the former alternative school at 612 Apple Street in Burlington – that’s currently estimated at $7.4 million.
“We want to get a pulse from the board on this,” interim ABSS superintendent Dr. James (“Jim”) Merrill told school board members at the outset of a brief discussion Tuesday afternoon.
Sellars Gunn had served as the alternative school for ABSS until 2012, when it moved to Ray Street Academy in Graham.
Today, Sellars Gunn houses student support programs and the Alamance Virtual School, as well as offices for ABSS staff and for The Budd Group, a company in Winston-Salem that provides custodial services for ABSS facilities, based on information that was presented Tuesday by assistant superintendent Dr. Todd Thorpe.
The front of the building is currently used as warehouse space, which Thorpe said Tuesday “becomes a junk hole,” adding, “stuff gets there and kind of gets lost.”
There’d been talk in years past about making that area into a conference center, Thorpe said during the school board’s latest work session.
The gym would require some sort of “lift” to be put in to meet federal accessibility regulations, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Thorpe told the board.
For instance, while the city of Burlington occasionally uses Sellars Gunn, the county’s board of elections had asked about it but couldn’t use it because the building doesn’t meet ADA standards, Thorpe elaborated.
As currently envisioned, the first floor could house therapy rooms for disabled prekindergarten students; a safety technology shop; custodial offices and storage; several training rooms; offices for staff who serve hearing-impaired students; and two or three conference rooms.
The second floor could house student services programs and offices, as well as the gymnasium and an adjoining stage.
The third floor would house the Virtual School, as well as offices for instructional support and Exceptional Children’s staff. Thorpe said Tuesday that the third floor had been renovated about 15 years ago but would need some “painting, some TLC” to bring that part of the building back up to current standards.
The estimated $7.4 million price tag would cover an addition and renovations to bring the building into compliance with ADA regulations; asbestos abatement in existing classrooms and replacement of tile; new heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems throughout; new plumbing; new acoustical ceiling tiles with LED lighting; electrical upgrades; a new entrance façade and exterior window replacements; resurfacing and re-striping the parking lot; plus 5 percent set-asides as contingency for construction and architectural/engineering fees, based on a preliminary estimate that Pinnacle Architects of Matthews provided for ABSS. (The same firm designed renovations/additions that ABSS is completing at several existing schools with proceeds from the $150 million package that voters approved in November 2018.)
Meanwhile, school board member Wayne Beam wondered what ABSS might be able to build for the same amount of money it would cost to renovate Sellars Gunn.
However, school board member Ryan Bowden asked Tuesday, “Are we switching gears?” He said he thought “we were trying to transition, to get our people away from Sellars Gunn,” referring to several presentations that the board heard last year about vacant commercial buildings that ABSS could lease to provide offices for staff who are currently based at Sellars Gunn, which Thorpe had said is increasingly falling into disrepair.
“That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” Thorpe said Tuesday.
School board members voted unanimously last September to approve a two-year lease for a vacant office building on South Main Street in Burlington to use as offices for 30 employees in the EC and pre-k programs.
The board has also entertained the possibility of renting other vacant commercial properties – at one point including the former BB&T branch building along South Main Street in Graham, which was ultimately deemed too costly to upgrade for the school system’s needs and bought instead by State Employees’ Credit Union – to move other staff out of Sellars Gunn.
At the same time, both the board and ABSS administration seemed to agree this week on the importance of preserving and honoring the history of the former J.F. Gunn Elementary School and Jordan Sellars High School, which were built in 1942 and 1954, respectively, and served black students exclusively prior to desegregation.
Both schools were closed in the early 1970s, based on a historic marker that the Jordan Sellars Class Reunion and Historical Fund paid to have erected near the intersection of Apple and Rosenwald streets in Burlington in 2017.
Construction of both schools was financed by the Rosenwald Fund, a charitable foundation bankrolled by Julius Rosenwald (one of the original owners of Sears, Roebuck & Company) to build schools to educate black children, predominantly in the rural South.
Several school board members floated the idea Tuesday of possibly partnering with the county or community groups to turn Sellars Gunn into a community center of some sort.
School board vice chairman Patsy Simpson said, “I like the idea of being able to partner with the county,” adding that she thought the county had received some funds from the American Rescue Plan that might offset the costs to renovate Sellars Gunn.
“Without partnerships,” Bowden said, “this would be a big, big project that I don’t think we would be able to handle on our own.”
“Who knows what kind of positive outcomes we could have from the bond projects,” said school board member Allison Gant. “I think it’s lovely; it’s beautiful…I think it’s worth the investigation because I think you make a valid point – that is not a cheap price tag.”