ERWIN — Renee Lingerfelt, a kindergarten teacher for the Unicoi County Schools system, referred to Love Chapel Elementary School as “home.” It’s the only school the 19-year educator has known in her career, as Lingerfelt even completed her student teaching there.
It’s because of this that Lingerfelt described the Unicoi County Board of Education’s move to close Love Chapel as “sad.” Still, she said she knows it is the best decision.
“We have to trust the geologists and the engineers and, I guess, the decision was made for us, wasn’t it?” Lingerfelt said. (Unicoi County Director of Schools Denise) Brown is not going to let us go in there if it’s not safe for our children.”
Lingerfelt was among the Love Chapel faculty, school officials and parents of Love Chapel students who gathered in the Unicoi County High School auditorium Monday evening for a public meeting to get more information on the Unicoi County Board of Education’s decision to permanently shut down the elementary school.
On Thursday, the board voted to close Love Chapel after receiving the results of recently conducted testing on the grounds. After being hired by the board, engineers with HSA Engineers & Scientists conducted testing in December and January, which included 16 soil borings across the school property. According to the firm’s report, four areas on the property showed signs of sinkhole activity and two other areas were found to be in the process of developing sinkhole activity.
“Based on the results of our geotechnical evaluation and knowledge of local geology, the risk of sinkhole development within select areas of the project site, in our opinion, is considered moderate to high,” the report said.
Brown said it was this threat of future sinkholes, coupled with the large sinkhole that was discovered on the school’s grounds in August, that led to the board’s decision.
“When you hear that you’re going to have moderate to high risk of sinkhole activity and you’ve had 16 borings done and, out of the 16, four of them are most certainly sinkhole activity with two others showing lots of weathering that could turn into a sinkhole, the very first thing is the safety of our students,” Brown said Monday.
Love Chapel has been closed since a large sinkhole was discovered near the school Aug. 18. A relocation plan for Love Chapel’s students was implemented later that month in which Love Chapel students in kindergarten through second grade were relocated to Unicoi County Intermediate School and third-grade students were moved to Unicoi County Middle School.
Emily Senter, the parent of a Love Chapel first-grade student, was in attendance for Monday’s meeting and said this relocation plan has worked well.
“She’s had a great year,” Senter said of her daughter. “I’ve been very impressed with how they have done the move, how fast they got organized, how they have communicated with the parents, so I’ve been very pleased.”
And while Brown commended the intermediate school, middle school and Love Chapel staffs for “making a bad situation work,” she said school officials must now look at a long-term relocation solution. She said officials are evaluating several options, and that by the time school resumes in the fall, Love Chapel students will be relocated in a place of their own.
“We feel very strongly that, if at all possible, by August our students will be relocated into a place that will be a little bit more functional than what it is now,” Brown said.
Brown said she hopes to be able to make a recommendation to the board of education within the next couple of weeks.
“We have to move at that rate in order to have everything ready to go in August,” she said. “And, I think, when you look at this, I think you have to realistically talk about a three-year plan. If you started today, if you had an architect hired, starting design of the school, finding property. Property in Unicoi County is not readily available, so there’s a lot of things, as we move forward, we’ll be looking at all those issues.
“Do I have answers to all those now? No I don’t, but I’ll tell you this board will work diligently and I will work diligently, no matter how many hours we have to put in, to make sure this process is done efficiently, with always keeping our students first.”
After Brown’s presentation, Love Chapel Elementary School Principal Ben Evely took to the stage. Evely took the opportunity to reiterate what he said after Love Chapel was closed following the discovery of the sinkhole in August.
“Love Chapel Elementary School will not only continue to be Love Chapel, but we will emerge a better and stronger school for our students and our community,” he said.
Brown said those wishing to obtain a copy of the engineer’s report may do so by calling her administrative assistant, Cathy Anderson, at 743-1607.