If everything falls into place, Love Chapel Elementary School students will have a place of their own by the time classes resume following the summer break.
Exactly one month after it voted to close Love Chapel Elementary School due to sinkhole concerns, the Unicoi County Board of Education voted Thursday to approve a long-term relocation plan for the school’s displaced students.
The plan calls for modular classrooms for Love Chapel students to be set up in property owned by the Unicoi County Schools system located behind the Unicoi County Intermediate School and just downhill from Unicoi County High School. With Thursday’s approval, the purchase of 12 28-foot by 66-foot modular units will be put out to bid today. Board member Tyler Engle cast the lone dissenting vote, and board member Rick Butler was not present at Thursday’s board meeting.
Unicoi County Director of Schools Denise Brown said school officials looked at four different school system-owned properties before opting for the space behind Unicoi County Intermediate School. She said some items, such as proximity to a fire hydrant, had to be taken into consideration, and that the area behind the intermediate school will provide the space for the modular units and the installation of a playground area.
“We tried to look at everything we have now and make sure we had the space,” Brown said.
The 12 modulars will have space for 24 classrooms, each with a separate restroom facility. Per the site plan, grade levels will be “blocked” together on the site to keep them as grouped as possible. In the center of the site, a modular unit will be set up for school administrative offices, another for library and computer lab space, and another for nursing and special education. A separate modular will also be set up as a dining area. All of the modulars are to be joined by covered walkways. Brown said construction of parking spaces and a sidewalk in front of the area will also be necessary.
Brown said the proposal calls for the modulars to be leased for three years. She said this will buy school officials time to address a new school building for Love Chapel Elementary School students.
“Once we get the bids and get this moving, then that discussion will happen with the board, what are our future plans, what route do we need to go, and insurance, also, so all that’s going to play into it,” she said.
The bid solicited by the board will also include site work necessary before the modular units are placed on the property. This work includes grading and water line work.
Last month, the Unicoi County Board of Education unanimously voted to permanently close Love Chapel Elementary School after the results of an engineering firm’s testing revealed the possibility of future sinkholes opening up on school grounds in addition to the sinkhole discovered near the school in August.
Florida-based HSA Engineers & Scientists was hired by the school board in December to conduct testing on the school’s property. According to its report, 16 borings taken across school grounds in January found that four areas on the property showed signs of sinkhole activity and two others were found to be in the process of developing sinkhole activity.
Brown said Thursday that the safety of the school system’s students is the board’s top priority, adding that parents of Love Chapel students have been supportive of the decision to close the school.
“They don’t want their children going back to where something’s unsafe and you have the possibility for more sinkholes,” she said.
The school had been closed since a large sinkhole was discovered on Aug. 18 by someone walking in the area. Classes were canceled for the week of Aug. 20, and Love Chapel students were relocated to available space at other Unicoi County schools through a short-term relocation plan that went into effect on Aug. 27. Love Chapel students in kindergarten through second grade were relocated to Unicoi County Intermediate School, and third-grade students were relocated to Unicoi County Middle School.
Brown said she is still working with the school system’s insurance provider, but she anticipates that the relocation plan approved Thursday will be covered entirely through insurance.
“My understanding in talking to our attorney is that they are responsible because within the policy it talks about when you have damage to a building, they’re responsible for relocation, so we interpret that for all relocation,” she said. “So our attorney is also onboard with this.”
After last month’s decision to shut down Love Chapel Elementary School for good, members of the Board of Education expressed their intent to have a long-term relocation option for Love Chapel students in place before students return to classes after the summer break. Brown said Thursday that officials hope to have the site work and modulars in place by the end of July so this goal will be met.
“Hopefully we’ll have it all ready for students to start there in August,” she said.