By Brad Hicks
For some time, the end of the school year has not only brought with it a period of well-deserved rest for Unicoi County’s students but questions surrounding the future of one of the county’s schools.
“For years, every year at the end of the year, we always had people ask, ‘Are they closing it this year? Are we shutting down?’ And that was always the question,” said Temple Hill Elementary School Principal Angie Vaughn.
Earlier this year, the Unicoi County Board of Education resoundingly put to rest these concerns, as the panel voted to invest more than $1 million to bring needed upgrades and renovations to THES.
“With them doing this, it just showed that they are investing in this community and this school and our students,” Vaughn said, “and we are just beyond thrilled.”
A ribbon cutting ceremony and open house for the recently-renovated THES was held Thursday, Sept. 15. Henry Clouse, who current Unicoi County Director of Schools John English referred to as a “legend” in the Temple Hill community, was on hand to cut the ceremonial ribbon. Clouse was once principal at THES and himself served as the county’s director of schools.
Current Assistant Director of Schools Tommy Clouse, Henry Clouse’s son who has twice served as the system’s interim director, also has ties to THES, as does English, who attended the school when it was a kindergarten through 8th-grade facility.
THES benefited from the school board’s prior move to reconfigure the school system. In February, the board voted to close Unicoi County Intermediate School and return all of the county’s elementary schools to kindergarten through 5th grade campuses.
The board’s action to close the Intermediate School, which housed 4th and 5th graders, was prompted by the impending expiration of the school system’s lease of modular units that had served as Love Chapel Elementary School since the 2013-14 school year. The original LCES was permanently closed after a large sinkhole was found on its grounds in August 2012.
The school system received around $4 million in insurance funds from the closure of the original LCES. Approximately $3 million of this funding was used to lease the modular units and, had the school board voted to keep LCES at the modular campus, the school system was expected to pay around $1 million for the modulars.
The former Intermediate School became the new LCES with the start of the 2016-17 school year.
By opting not to purchase the modulars, that funding was freed up for capital projects, including the upgrades to THES. In late March, the Unicoi County Board of Education awarded a $1.1 million bid for THES renovations to Johnson City-based Preston Construction.
Renovations to THES included the installation of a new gymnasium floor, a new roof, new playground equipment and retrofitted bathrooms. Most of the work, however, will go unseen but should serve to enhance the student experience at THES and increase school safety. New electrical wiring was installed throughout the school, replacing the wiring that had been in the school since it was constructed in the early 1950s. New HVAC units were also installed in each classroom, a new fire alarm system was put in place, and each classroom was newly rewired for technology.
“We knew on this end of the county it was very important to keep a school here and wanted to invest that money into making it structurally sound,” English said. “The brick and mortar is the same but, really, almost everything else is new.”
Unicoi County Board of Education Chairman Tyler Engle said the school board takes pride in the fact that it did not have to borrow money to complete the THES renovations, instead relying on capital already available inside the school system.
“Being able to make a strong commitment to having a community-based school south of the river, we just recognized the value in that,” Engle said. “I hope that the dividends from that investment show.”
The work, which was completed over the summer, did not delay the opening of THES to begin the 2016-17 school year. Preparation for the gym floor project actually began a couple of weeks before the end of the 2015-16 school year and was finished shortly after the start of the current school year.
“It’s so rare that we’re able to say that a project started and ended on time, a capital project, so this was just a tremendous effort by everybody involved. It really was,” Engle said.
A new awning was also installed above the school’s main entrance. Vaughn said this represented a four-year project, as the school’s parent-teacher organization saved funding for the awning for two years, but waited another two years before having it installed until plans for the school were learned.
Last year, THES was home to approximately 80 pre-K through 3rd-grade students. With the reconfiguration, the school is now home to around 110 pre-K through 5th-grade students.
English said school system officials are also working to bolster enrollment numbers at THES. He said over the years some parents residing within the THES zone have had their children attend other schools within the county for various reasons, including having children attend schools closer to where their parents work. English said one aim of the renovation project was to make THES “more viable” and “more appealing.”
“We’re trying to beef the numbers up at Temple Hill, and bringing 4th and 5th grade here does that,” English said, “but we’re also looking a little closer at some of the hardships and trying to get folks rezoned here to Temple Hill.”
English also expressed his appreciation to Preston Construction, the school system’s custodial, maintenance and technology crews, and THES’s faculty and staff for making the renovation project a success.
“From beginning to end, there was a lot of hard work, sweat, and maybe even a few tears in between somewhere, but it was just an amazing come-together-and-get-it-done effort,” English said.