The Fayetteville City School System is pursuing a $5 million Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant to construct a tornado safe room on the Fayetteville High School campus, a facility that could be a multi-purpose building housing classrooms, the first of its kind in Tennessee.

Just before Christmas, city school system officials learned about the FEMA grant opportunity, brought to their attention by Eddie Keys, assistant principal at FHS. While facilities in other states have been constructed using the FEMA grant, none exist in Tennessee.

Eric Jones, facilities director, and Keys worked together under tight time constraints in making application for the tornado safe room with the deadline looming at the end of December.

“These tornado safe rooms are also utilized dual purpose as school facilities,” Jones told the city school board during its meeting last week, noting that the FEMA grant is a 75/25 matching grant, requiring the school system to provide the 25 percent match. “If we are granted the FEMA funds, we could also build on other facilities for our 25 percent proportion.”

Since the system is in the process of planning for a building program, officials decided to pursue the grant for the safe room before committing to construction plans at the high school, plans that include possibly building a stand-alone career and technical education (CTE) facility so that those classrooms could be moved from portables where they are currently housed.

 “That has put some of our other (building) plans on pause because we don’t want to spend money twice,” Jones added. “We want to be good stewards.”

According to Jones, safe rooms built using FEMA grant funds can withstand winds up to 250 miles per hour and provide protection from flying debris. A safe room on the FHS campus, Jones said, would be in reach of not only students at FHS and Fayetteville Middle in the event of a tornado, but also numerous residents in the area. Jones noted that at any given time there could be 1,000 people on the campus with another 600 residing in public housing within a half mile. Additionally, there are residents in apartments across Wilson Parkway and approximately 150 to 200 homes within a half-mile radius.

“You’re looking at 1,000 to 2,000 people that could reach this in a five-minute warning,” Jones said.

After hours when school is not in session, Jones noted, emergency personnel would have the ability to open the safe room immediately.

“I think it is a plus for our community, and of course, it’s a plus for the school system,” said Dr. Janine Wilson, director of schools. “It’s a win-win.”

Wilson, as fiscal agent for the school system, sent a letter with the grant application guaranteeing the system has the necessary 25 percent match of $1.25 million – “For that amount of money, we would get an over $5 million building to be used for the community as a safe room,” the director told school board members. “I think the community would be exceptionally proud having a place to go in the event of severe weather.”

Wilson credited Jones and Keys with putting the community in a favorable position to receive the FEMA grant. “They worked so hard to get this ready under a very tight timeline,” she said. “They deserve all the credit.”

She also expressed appreciation to Mayor Michael Whisenant, who has been supportive in the application process. And although the City of Fayetteville is acting as facilitator for the grant, the financial responsibility of providing the 25 percent match rests with the Fayetteville City School System.

“It’s going to put us behind on our building (program), but you are also going to get something good for the community that isn’t available now,” the director said. “We have more than we want of severe weather, and I think this would be a great asset to our community, having that security of knowing there is a place people could go. It’s also significant knowing we have a place to put our children out of harm’s way.”

According to Jones, the system should hear word about the grant winners in September.


Other plans

While the majority of the system’s building plans are now on hold while officials await word on the grant, several projects are moving forward, including plans to improve building security at the front entrances of Ralph Askins School and Fayetteville High School.

“That is in the works right now,” Wilson said, noting the architect has been on site to begin that project. “We’re looking at changing the layout to better secure the front.”

The project should be underway this summer and completed in time for the beginning of the 2020-21 school year this fall, she said.

Additionally, system officials are still reviewing bids for improvements at the high school football field and its surrounding track. Plans call for the track to be repaved, drainage and sprinkler issues resolved and grass installed. The project, expected to total between $300,000 and $350,000, may be completed by spring.

An indoor facility for the softball and baseball programs is also in the works. The proposed metal building is estimated to cost $250,000 and would more than likely be situated on a 1.8 acre parcel the system is in the process of purchasing adjacent to Fayetteville Middle. The system and the property’s owner have verbally agreed upon a price of $54,000 for the lot, which already has utilities in place.

“I feel really strongly we’ve neglected those programs not having a place to practice,” Wilson said.

That project, expected to go out for bids soon, should take three to four months to complete.

Another project ready to be bid is replacement of the FHS gymnasium floor, original to the school and over 50 years old. Flooring experts have told system officials that the floor cannot be sanded and refinished again and must be replaced.

According to Jones, the winning bidder will have to start on the project as soon as graduation is over in May and complete the floor over the summer. The new floor is estimated to cost $180,000.

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