FIRST LOOK: Gainesville school unveils plans for new addition, renovation
During the next few years, Gainesville High School will undergo a major renovation that will add 7,792-square feet to the existing structure, creating a totally new facade, new locker rooms, offices, storage room and a multi-use common area. The current gym will also get a complete overhaul, including an upgraded set of bleachers that will be ADA-compliant and can be retracted to the wall. However, the most important feature of the new space is that it provides a safe place in the event of a tornado warning. The new structure, which can withstand 250-mph winds, will be open for students and staff as well as nearby residents anytime a tornado warning is issued – even outside of school hours.
Gainesville superintendent Justin Gilmore sat down with the Times last week to give readers a first look at plans for the project, which will cost somewhere around $3 million total.
Overview of project
The renovation project’s financial foundation will be a FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) grant that will provide the school district with $2,046,816 to build a basic tornado shelter that is capable of protecting 930 people.
The district is required to provide a “match” of $227,424, which equals 10 percent of the approved project’s cost, with FEMA’s portion totaling 90 percent. Gilmore says that combined money can only be used to pay for very strictly defined FEMA-approved costs.
“Here’s where some people get confused. That money can only be used for FEMA-eligible costs,” Gilmore said about both the over $2 million from FEMA and the $227,424 from the Gainesville School District. “So that means we can pay for the basic concrete, pre-cast block structure. We can pay for a set number of toilets. I think we could buy three toilets with it but not any more than that. We can pay for a set number of lights. We can pay for heating, but those funds can’t be used for air conditioning,” he said. “There are a lot of things that those funds can’t pay for… flooring, for example. They can’t be used for anything above a basic concrete floor. They can’t be used for any interior framing or anything to be finished at all. Those funds can only pay for the basic concrete block structure that creates the tornado shelter.”
While some schools do leave their FEMA tornado shelters at the very basic level, Gilmore said the Gainesville School District plans to add an additional $600,000 to $800,000 in improvements on top of its $227,424 match to finish out the structure. Those funds will be used to pay for the things that are not eligible for FEMA funding but will make the space a more functional addition to the current building.
“If we only used the FEMA grant money, we’d have a big concrete, basic block structure, but that’s never been the plan for us. This [addition] is going to be used in so many different ways,” he said. “But we have to put a little more into it in order to make that happen.”
The new school front
The new addition will be built directly onto the front of the existing high school, positioned in front of the area that now houses the school’s gym, front entry and administrative offices and cafeteria.
Because the addition will serve as the front face of the school, the district has planned to invest funds to make the structure more visually appealing than the basic structure allowed by FEMA.
The pre-cast concrete will include a brick inlay design with decorative trim. A large red bulldog will be painted on the front of the building, matching the school’s name hung in large letters.
The existing building, attached to the rear of the new addition, will be cleaned, and the bottom will be stained to help bring the colors of both structures together for a more seamless look.
The design plan features two plate-glass vestibules, or entryways. One vestibule will be located at the main entrance, and another will connect the southeast side of the new FEMA shelter to the existing junior high wing, allowing students to access both sections of the school without going outside.
The glass vestibules will be built with shatter-proof glass for the first 8 feet from the ground. The high school entrance will be outfitted with a security feature that requires visitors to push a button to speak with a school employee, who can then unlock the doors to allow the visitor inside.
Loss of some parking spaces, bus lane changes
Because the new structure will be built into what is now the school’s parking lot, a few parking spaces will be eliminated.
“It’ll basically take up what I call the ‘island,’” Gilmore said, referring to a grassy section of the high school parking lot that sits between the school and further parking. “That means we’ll lose nine parking spaces there. But you’ll still have the parking spaces that are on the back side of [the island]. It may also take up a few spots right in front of the junior high building, but it’s not going to take up nearly as much parking as you’d think it would.”
Gilmore says now the school’s buses line up in front of the building, but that process will change as the school has already begun construction on a new bus lane that will stretch from the elementary school to run along the southeast side of the school’s junior high wing. Gilmore says the new bus lane will help eliminate the additional space needed in the front of the school, and it’s also a safer alternative to the school’s current bus-boarding procedures.
“Now, if you’re riding the bus, you’re going out [the front entrance]. If you’re driving a vehicle, you’re also going out there,” he said. “With the new plan, the buses will be lined up in an area where other vehicles are not allowed. That way you don’t have the buses having to wiggle through vehicles.”
The current bus procedures also include an awkward flow where buses line up along the high school, load students, then have to drive out onto Bulldog Drive for a few hundred yards and then turn back into the high school parking lot and drive down to the elementary school.
After the bus lane is complete, the buses will line up at the high school, load junior high and high school students and travel down to the elementary school to load those students. The buses will then be free to turn out of the parking lot and complete their respective routes.
Gilmore says he anticipates the district will begin using the new bus lane before the 2020-21 school year is finished.
New commons area expands cafeteria space
Once construction of the new addition is complete, those entering the school from the main entrance will first walk into the largest room within the new addition, a commons area. The commons will attach to the school’s existing cafeteria. What is now the exterior wall, which would have separated the two spaces, will be removed.
Large, pull-down doors will be installed inside the ceiling between the two rooms, allowing staff to separate the spaces when needed or to secure the FEMA shelter during a tornado warning. But Gilmore says he anticipates that most of the time during school hours, the doors will be up, allowing the two rooms to flow into one another, more than doubling the size of the existing cafeteria.
“Commons areas are built into a lot of schools, but we currently don’t have one,” he said. “It’ll be an area where kids can come in the morning; plus, it adds some space for people to spread out during lunch.”
Gilmore says students are currently eating meals inside their classrooms, but in non-covid times, the school has had to break the student population into three separate groups to allow enough room for the junior high and high schoolers to eat. With the expanded space, it’s likely the school can downsize to just two lunch periods.
The northwest side of the commons area will house two additional full-sized bathrooms. Because of the way the gym entrances will shift (explained in more detail below), the high school’s bathrooms that are currently used during sports games will not be accessible to attendees. Instead, the new bathrooms will be available in after-hours or extra-curricular situations.
Offices move to front of the building
The high school’s receptionist and the junior high and high school principals’ offices will move into the new addition.
The receptionist’s space will be in an office that connects to the glass vestibule, giving her a clear view to see visitors who may be asking to enter the building. The principals’ offices will be accessed through the receptionist’s office.
The office area will also have a single bathroom, a storage closet and a conference room.
Gym renovation, new bleachers
The largest renovation to the building that isn’t part of the FEMA-funded addition, but works in cooperation with it, is an overhaul of the school’s current high school gym.
“This summer, those bleachers are coming out,” Gilmore said of the gym’s current built-in bleachers that have been the topic of much discussion by area residents. “That’s the biggest complaint we hear about our gym, is the bleachers. People can’t get in them, so a lot of people just don’t come to things at the school.”
The current permanently fixed bleachers will be replaced with “roll-back” bleachers, Gilmore says, that will accommodate a much larger crowd.
“They’ll have five rows of bleachers with seat backs, approximately 200 seats. Then above that we’ll have another 350 seats of regular bleacher seats. They’ll be ADA compliant. So the steps won’t be so steep or tall for people to step up,” he said.
Gilmore says the bleachers can be retracted to the west wall when not in use, providing an additional 2,300 square feet of space inside the gym.
Because the new bleacher design will sit flush with the west gym wall, there will no longer be an entry into the gym on that side of the building as there is now. Instead, patrons will follow a corridor from the new commons area to enter the gym on its northeast side.
“This is a way to spend a little bit of money on the gym to make it where everyone can go into it, where it’s accessible to everyone, and we’ll have a nice gym at the end of it. It’s already a fun gym for our players to play in. We have a really good home court advantage, and now we’ll have 550 seats,” he said.
“Then, we can stop talking about the gym, and we can start discussions on other concerns. We need to make sure our teachers aren’t the lowest paid in the county or the lowest in our conference. That’s what I’m ready to talk about,” Gilmore said.
Locker rooms and concession stand move
The two original locker rooms underneath the current bleachers will be removed. These old locker rooms extend up above floor level under the fixed bleachers.
Gilmore says there is about 54 inches of space between the locker room floors and where the gym floor will begin. That space will be filled in and covered in concrete, and wood flooring will be laid over the top of it to extend the gym’s current floor out to create a usable space.
New, modern locker rooms will be built inside the new addition. Gilmore says they will feature one shower each, as most students do not currently use the showers within the locker rooms.
During basketball games, players will enter and exit the gym from the door on the northeast side of the gym.
“They’ll walk through a door that’ll be where the players sit now lined up on the wall in front of the stage,” Gilmore said.
The concession stand will move from its current location into the new addition as well, and will be accessible from the corridor.
An early-stage timeline
Gilmore says the renovation process will be ongoing for some time, and as with any major building project, the timeline is likely to shift and be altered along the way. But he’s given this general proposed timeline for the project:
The bidding process for the FEMA project will begin sometime at the end of February or early March and will last one to two months.
Once a general contractor is chosen, the district will have a clearer idea of when construction can begin. Gilmore says it’s possible that the district may be able to break ground over the summer.
“We’ll have a general timeline, but everything hinges on when they can actually start working on it. They might still be on another project, or they might be able to jump right in. It just depends.”
The new bus lane is currently under construction, and Gilmore says he anticipates it will be completed and put to use in the next few months.
The gym and bleacher renovation will begin in May as soon as the current school year ends, and it’s hoped that it can be completed before Aug. 23, when classes are set to start for the 2021-22 school year. Gilmore says summer school students and sports teams will use outside spaces and the elementary gym during construction.
“As for the FEMA project, my goal is that we’ll be under construction for one school year, . . . the 2021-22 school year, and then we would have a brand-new facade and FEMA shelter for the 2022-23 school year,” he said. “That’s the goal. It’s not a concrete plan. You just never know how smoothly it’ll all go.”
Transition during construction
It is anticipated that the FEMA project will likely be under construction while classes are in session for the 2021-22 school year; therefore, the district will need to change some procedures during the construction period. The biggest change will involve the flow of traffic into the school.
During construction, the main entrance to the school, where students and employees enter, will shift from the front of the building to a side door at the southeast side of the building that now leads directly into the junior high hallway.
The school receptionist’s office will be moved to that temporary new entrance, and the door will be outfitted with safety features allowing the door to be locked until the receptionist unlocks it and buzzes in any visitors.
Locals can bid
Gilmore says the main FEMA project will be awarded to a general contractor, and as far as he knows, there are no local companies that could undertake a project of that magnitude, but he says that doesn’t mean no local workforce will be involved.
“There’ll be some things that they’ll have an opportunity to bid on, like HVAC, concrete work, stuff like that. We encourage locals to bid on those projects as they come up,” he said. “Also, most of the work with the gym renovation and bleacher installation will be done with local workers.”
Finding funding for updates
Gilmore says the FEMA grant will be added to other grants, private donations and other funding opportunities the school has received over the last few years; those funding sources, combined, has allowed the district to make upgrades it wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.
“Lots of the stuff we’ve been wanting to get done, and have tried to get done for years, we’ve been able to do because we uniquely went about getting the funds,” he said. “That’s allowed us to use some district funds for the essentials.”
Gilmore says the district has been able to replace much of the roofing in the high school and junior high building, install new lockers in the junior high and high schools and install new controls throughout the whole district that has saved 30 percent in energy costs so far. In the elementary school, a new HVAC system has been installed, and classrooms have been outfitted with new furniture.
In addition to those projects and the $2,046,816 FEMA grant, the Gainesville School District has also been awarded these grants in recent years that have allowed it further stretch its dollars.
Buses - The school received $162,000 in November 2020 from the Volkswagen school bus replacement program and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. The funds paid for about 60 percent of the total cost of three new school buses.
Library - In April 2019, the Ovia Marie and Leroy McGinnis Fund awarded Gainesville High School and Junior High School $10,000 to update and renovate the school’s library into a learning lab and media center. Another $20,000 was gifted from the Coover Regional Grant program to expand the student opportunities within the learning lab including online courses through Missouri’s LAUNCH program.
Ag greenhouse and business lab - In March 2019, Gainesville High School was awarded a $170,000 vocational enhancement grant that was “matched” with about $43,000 of district funds. The funds were used, in part, to install a 30’ by 60’ high-tech greenhouse that features automatic shade-cloth retraction and irrigation and fertilization systems. The remainder of the money was combined with a $6,000 private donation from the Harlin Family and used to outfit a “business lab” within the school that is used by the district’s high school business classes and Future Business Leaders of America.
“These are all on top of our ‘normal’ grants that we write, and the smaller-scale grants that our teachers write for their own projects,” Gilmore says. “We’re doing the most we possibly can with what we’re able to find. When you put all of this together, it makes a huge difference.”