Future CHS renovations planned

The Columbia School District has been addressing the very early stages of a project that could see Columbia High School receiving major renovations in the next few years.

The project has been discussed at several recent school board meetings.

Most recently, January’s school board meeting saw the board select Cobalt Construction Consulting as owner representatives. Cobalt will, for a flat fee, represent the district as it oversees the project.

Improvements to CHS, which was built in 1970, were first discussed sometime ago, as the district observed capacity issues primarily at the high school and at Eagleview Elementary, with Columbia Middle School also taking on more grades than desired, according to Columbia Superintendent of Schools Chris Grode.

Along with general capacity issues, Grode said the district noted some improvements and amenities that could be added to better the school.

“Looking at our facilities and what could be done, the high school is in desperate need of renovation, period,” Grode said. “A district of our size and the number of activities that we have, we should have an auditorium, we should have a second gymnasium. So, it became quite clear that building on at the high school or building a new high school would be ideal.”

Grode said that while the district does own 70 acres of land just north of Columbia, the idea of a move was received poorly by the community given the school would then reside in St. Clair County – marking a substantial change from the current central location off Route 3.

In the time since it was decided to focus on improving and expanding the current CHS facility, the district has largely focused on getting a feel for all the specific additions staff and faculty would want.

A survey on this matter was conducted recently, with Jennifer Carlson of FGM Architects presenting at the December school board meeting to discuss the findings.

Should the district opt to fulfill every request from the school’s staff, the building could more than double in size from 103,370 square feet to 217,552 square feet of gross area. 

Usable floorspace would be about 150,036 square feet in this scenario.

As Carlson expressed at the meeting, those figures were merely a hypothetical change to determine what could potentially fit given the high school’s location, as it would be up to the board to decide what adjustments it wants and can afford to make.

Grode noted the range of areas the board must consider addressing while deciding what it hopes to get out of the finished project.

“There were a bunch of issues,” Grode said. “Storage is key. Places to organize your stuff is not there. Our labs are smaller, there are parts of them that aren’t ADA. Home Ec was a notable one because she does the sewing in the same room as she does the cooking, and so sometimes they’ve got to put boards on the stoves so that they can iron out clothes. It’s not ideal, not the proper spaces that we have.”

Grode also noted a number of relatively less urgent adjustments that were requested. Among these was the school’s agricultural teacher asking to move classes to the shop wing. Various modern amenities were also suggested to help keep CHS in line with other high schools in the area.

“There are some tweaks that could be done that would make all of our programs a little bit better,” Grode said. “That’s not to say that our teachers haven’t done amazing with what they’ve got, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t get nicer facilities, either.”

Along with determining what requests to fulfill, the board will also have to decide how to contend with challenges given the school’s current location.

“We’ve done some preliminary designs, and there will probably need to be some sacrifices,” Grode said. “However, what those will include has not been finalized.”

Grode said the CHS parking lot poses a particular problem. He noted that, not only is dirt work very expensive in construction, the school also has concerns about traffic already.

Getting rid of parking spots to add more space to the school, Grode said, means more students will be unable to drive their own vehicle to school. That could mean more students getting dropped off, which could cause even more congestion problems.

There is also the matter of overall project cost, which is estimated at roughly $25 million.

Grode said the cost isn’t currently a concern given district finances are in a solid position.

He added that a goal of the district moving forward is to keep the tax rate low and approach the project in a financially minded way.

Grode also spoke to the overall purpose of the project. On top of the many improvements to be made in the labs and classrooms, he said a district like Columbia deserves an optimal gym and an auditorium that will make sure high school students don’t have to perform in the middle school’s space.

“In the most general of purposes, the school should add value to the community,” Grode said. “You want to have your facilities providing what the community wants.”

The project is currently still in a pre-design phase, and Grode said construction is still quite a ways off. He currently hopes to either see the project finished or well under way in about five years.

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Andrew Unverferth

HTC web