While that may be the question on many minds, a simple walk through the hallways at Blanche School reveals a pride and spirit that only comes from a school fully backed by its community, its teachers and administrators, and its students.
Yet, the school’s aging facility is now 70 years old at its core, and the wear from all those decades is showing. Opened in 1948, after a fire destroyed much of what was then the Blanche Male and Female Academy, the school’s infrastructure is failing, even though the building gets the greatest amount of attention when it comes to maintenance compared to other Lincoln County schools, at least from the standpoint of square footage.
At 50,572 square feet, the school claims more than 13 percent of all the maintenance time and dollars spent by the department. That compares to Ninth Grade Academy, almost twice its size and responsible for 16.5 percent, and Lincoln County High School, nearly four times larger, at 19.6 percent.
Following last week’s County Budget Committee meeting, The Times asked for a tour of the building. That tour, led by Ricky Bryant, supervisor of facilities and maintenance for the county school system, and Christy Wright, principal, was Thursday.
The most looming need is a new roof over a large wing of the building, said Bryant, noting that while its current roof is metal, it has less than a two-percent grade and consistently leaks. Estimates put the cost of replacement with a pitched roof at $5 million.
Except for the entryway, which has been redone over the years, much of the brick and mortar forming the exterior of the building have become very porous with age. On the opposing sides of those walls, where concrete blocks were laid in place by prisoner labor all those decades ago, water seeps through. Sealants work for a month or so, Bryant said, but then the problem returns.
HVAC systems serving the building include a mismatched variety, from split units and compact wall units at the front of the building, to a basement boiler and other units on the backside. Among them is a new 25-ton HVAC unit just recently installed as well as a unit for which parts are no longer produced, resulting in department personnel having to make them by hand. Window units cool the cafeteria.
Once served by a well, the school still houses many of the 11 lines that run from the well to various parts of the building. Though the lines have been capped off, locating the pipes and valves and resolving backflow issues has been almost like solving an impossible puzzle.
Another waterline, which goes to the kitchen, is leaking currently, but digging it up without time to make needed repairs could result in closing the kitchen and, consequently, the school, for a few days, so the department is waiting until fall break to make those repairs. Still, the issues are another symptom of the building’s failing infrastructure.
Overall, plumbing work at the school is responsible for about half of the dollars spent on like problems system-wide, said Bryant.
Another somewhat related issue is traffic and parking, said Wright, noting that traffic frequently backs up down the Ardmore Highway, and while deputies regularly help the situation, accidents have occurred due to the congestion. Parking is also very limited, and often visitors park along the highway.
To accommodate more vehicles, car riders are routed to the back of the building along a gravel drive – a drive that won’t ever be paved, because of the sheer fact that every single year, the roadway is dug up to repair some type of leak.
Sandwiched between the highway and football field, which backs up to the cemetery, the school is somewhat landlocked. Even if additional property could be acquired, it wouldn’t accommodate the sewer fields that would be needed. Existing sewer fields occupy space that one might think could be used for parking, but that isn’t feasible either as the earth would sink under the weight of the vehicles.
The gym, however, remains a source of pride. “It is a beautiful gym and a testament to how well the school has been kept up, in my opinion, and that goes back to way before my time,” said Bryant. “We’ve just refinished the floors, but it’s the last time that can be done.”
Still, Wright notes, the gym has no storage, no offices for coaches, and little room for teams to sit courtside.
“We’ve got some folks who think that we haven’t done a good job keeping this building up — we’ve got some commissioners who think that,” said Bryant. “It would be difficult to find a 1948 gym, let alone one that still functions, but then to have one that looks this good is a testament to the administration and the parents.”
Emergency sewer patches, old electric panels in some areas, condensation issues, broken seals in all the doors at the back of the building, a single bathroom that serves all the school’s teachers, student bathrooms accessed through mechanical closets, the lack of a sprinkler system under a partially wooden roof, non-regulation size and oddly shaped classrooms without space for storage or closets, classrooms open to each other, and a teachers’ lounge unable to be equipped with running water and stifled by an inadequate cooling system are among other obstacles throughout the school.
A cramped library, the smallest of any in the system, serves the school’s 360 students, even though it doesn’t have adequate space to shelve all its books. Still, somehow it manages, even incorporating into its space a small area for class. For the student count, the library should be twice its size. A similar scenario is true for the cafeteria.
“To me, it isn’t about how well this building has been kept up, but rather, it’s more about how old the building is and that it’s simply taken a lot of wear,” said Bryant. “Every day we have to make decisions about whether to spend money fixing it, especially if there’s going to be a new school.”
“We want everyone to know we’ve done the best we could with what we have, but frankly, these kids deserve better,” said Wright, commending the job administration and maintenance staff do. “We’re all willing to work through these issues, especially if we know a new school is coming.”