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Public forums set to talk future of Love Chapel

The Unicoi County Board of Education is facing a deadline that will determine the future location of Love Chapel Elementary and its members have scheduled public forums in order to receive input from community members.
According to Director of Schools John English, the lease on the modular buildings that currently house the school expires in May at the end of this school year. This leaves English and the board with a decision: Do they purchase the modulars for approximately $1 million or do they find another location for the school?
English said he and the board are currently leaning toward allowing the lease to expire and finding a new home for Love Chapel. As of now, though it is subject to change, the plan that has garnered the most traction from the board is using the building that now houses the intermediate school as the new home for Love Chapel, according to English.
“It just doesn’t make sense to me to spend another approximately $1 million dollars on modulars,” English said. “We have already spent approximately $3 million on them. Modulars cannot be a permanent home for a school. Even though the faculty, staff, parents and students of Love Chapel have made the best out of a difficult situation, the time has come to give them a real school building.”
In order to do this, the director said, the system will cease to use the intermediate school concept, which called for all fourth and fifth grade students in the county to attend the same school, and return all the county’s elementary schools to a Kindergarten through fifth grade (K-5) setup.
The county’s elementary schools – Unicoi, Rock Creek, Temple Hill and Love Chapel – currently only house Kindergarten through third grade classes.
“We have space at all the elementary schools to house Kindergarten through fifth grade classes,” English said. “We don’t have to do any construction at Unicoi, Rock Creek, Temple Hill and the intermediate school buildings to make this move.”
English said there are “several advantages” to going back to four K-5 elementary schools and doing away with the intermediate school.
“Right now, our students have to change schools several times during their time in the school system,” he added. “They move from their elementary school, to the intermediate school, to the middle school, then to the high school. That’s a lot of transitions for our students. If we can eliminate one of those moves, I believe it will help our students. There is no evidence to suggest that having our fourth and fifth grade students in their own school has helped our test scores.”
The director also said the K-5 system will keep students connected to their school and surrounding communities longer.
“Most of us grew up in a K-8 or K-5 system,” English said. “We were able to develop relationships with our fellow classmates and the faculty and staff of our schools before we had to move to another building. I would like to see our current students have that security and connection to their elementary schools. I think that will be a huge positive.”
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English said the board has not formally voted on this consolidation plan.
During a work session of the board on Thursday, Jan. 14, the members scheduled three public meetings to discuss the plan and to receive input from the community.
The first meeting will be held at Unicoi Elementary School on Monday, Jan. 25, at 6 p.m. The second will be held at Temple Hill Elementary School on Thursday, Jan. 28, at 6 p.m. The final meeting will be held in the Unicoi County High School auditorium on Thursday, Feb. 4, at 6 p.m.
English said the public is invited to attend these meetings and share input on the proposed move.
“For example, if someone who lives in Unicoi can’t attend the Jan. 25 meeting, they are welcome to attend another,” English said. “The board members and I want everyone to have an opportunity to have their voices heard.”
Depending on the results of the public forums, English said the board could formally vote on a plan as early as February or March.
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Love Chapel was moved to the modulars three years ago. A sinkhole found on the original campus of Love Chapel in August 2012 led to the permanent closure of that campus. Before moving to the modulars in August 2013, Love Chapel classes were held at Unicoi County Intermediate School and Unicoi County Middle School during the 2012-2013 school year.
English said the system received $4 million in insurance funds from the closure of the former Love Chapel campus. Of that $4 million, approximately $3 million was used to lease the modulars and make the facility function as a school.
The director also said the remaining approximately $1 million, if not used to purchase the modulars, could be used for necessary capital projects throughout the system.
“If we move forward with the consolidation, we are going to need to invest in the buildings we already have,” English said. “For example, the Temple Hill building has not had a new roof in 26 years.”