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Johnson City school board members give blessing to continue development of $9 million Liberty Bell project

Jessica Fuller • Updated Aug 7, 2017 at 9:45 PM

Ten years ago, progress on adding a cafeteria to Liberty Bell Middle School’s campus was halted to prioritize other Johnson City school projects.

Now, the Johnson City Board of Education and the Johnson City Commission are looking to add another building that would include a cafeteria and gymnasium onto the main building.

During the school’s lifetime, students have crossed the courtyard of Liberty Bell to Freedom Hall Civic Center to use the gym and cafeteria. The preliminary draft plan for the school’s remodeling that began in 2006 included a cafeteria, but the idea was scrapped due to a lack of funds to complete it and several other projects in the city at the time.

“We had at that time, if I remember correctly, about $40 million that could be applied to school projects,” City Commissioner Ralph Van Brocklin said, who served on the school board at the time. “That got applied to Science Hill, that got applied to Fairmont (Elementary), but it didn’t get applied to Liberty Bell. At that time I certainly saw Liberty Bell as being one of the priorities and it turned out, at that time, to not be a priority.”

Construction moved forward in 2011 a middle administrative building was completed at Liberty Bell, and students continued the trek to Freedom Hall to use the gym and the cafeteria. This causes a number of issues, Van Brocklin said, like students not taking advantage of free breakfast because of the time it takes to get from Freedom Hall to the school for class.

Another concern of the current setup is security as students are almost constantly going back and forth between the two facilities during the day.

“One of the issues I’ve dealt a lot when I was on the school board is that doors get left open at Freedom Hall all the time,” Van Brocklin said. “It would be so easy for members of the public, anybody, to walk over there when kids are over there, particularly in the gym area. That’s a real concern, so those things have to be addressed.”

The possibility of revisiting the project came back during city school facilities meetings, then the City Commission progressed to a signed contract with with Shaw & Shanks Architects to design the new building. Co-owners Tim Shaw and Tom Shanks brought schematics to the Johnson City Board of Education’s meeting Monday night and walked board members through preliminary design phase.

The project is estimated to cost $7.8 million with a $1.2 million contingency fund, rounding out to about $9 million, and would include construction and some furnishings like kitchen equipment. The gym is being designed to accommodate 1,300 students. If everything goes according to plan, the new building will be finished near the end of 2019, Shaw and Shanks said.

Next came the question of how to pay for the new facility.

A slight tax increase could be on the horizon for the project, but is still several months down the road depending on how the general budget looks, Van Brocklin told board members.

“Talking about how it’s going to be done, whether it’ll be coming out of the general fund or taxes, that’s probably premature, but we don’t have enough money coming in from the county from what they’re doing at Boones Creek to be able to take care of this entire project,” he said.

Email Jessica Fuller at jfuller@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow Jessica on Twitter @fullerjf91. Like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jfullerJCP.

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