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Alcoa hires architect for intermediate school expansion

Alcoa’s Public Building Authority gave the thumbs up Thursday to move ahead with plans to expand and renovate Alcoa Intermediate School, a project that has been under design for almost a year.

Specifically the Public Building Authority unanimously approved an architectural and engineering contract with The Lewis Group for a phased design of planned Alcoa Intermediate improvements and authorized LawlerWood LLC, which is managing the project, to seek proposals from general contractors and select one.

“The general contractor will assist the architect in constructability, phasing, site security design and cost estimating,” according to the Public Building Authority meeting agenda Thursday.

The intermediate school, which opened as Alcoa Middle in 2002 but now serves third-, fourth- and fifth-graders, started showing structural problems in 2015, according to previous stories in The Daily Times.

The Alcoa Board of Education voted in October 2017 to delay repairs and instead combine them with expanding the school, which Director of Schools Brian Bell said Thursday is in “a crisis of overcrowding.”

“For years, we averaged 100 students a grade (level),” Bell told the Public Building Authority. “As of this morning, we have 171 fourth-graders. Their lunchroom only seats 140 at a time. We had to go get more tables today.”

While there is capacity at Alcoa’s other three schools — elementary, middle and high — Bell called the intermediate school “a cork in our system.” As built, Alcoa Intermediate has a capacity of 445 students; in October 2017, the school was two students away from that.

“It’s that one school that is causing us heartache,” Bell said.

Public Building Authority member Dick Ray asked whether Alcoa City Schools had raised fees to cut down on the number of tuition students. Bell told him tuition had increased from $700 to $1,000 and that only four new tuition students entered the system as kindergarteners this year, all of whom are children of employees.

“We started this project over a year ago knowing this was coming,” Bell said, noting Alcoa City Schools grew by about 90 resident students in one year.

Meanwhile, Alcoa City Manager Mark Johnson noted that the intermediate school had problems from the get-go.

“On the day it opened, it was undersized,” he said of the school’s existing classrooms. “It was not designed properly.”

Plans explained

Douglas Shover with The Lewis Group showed the Public Building Authority plans that would add 88,460 square feet to Alcoa Intermediate and renovate 36,000 square feet.

With an expansion to 27 core classrooms, the school’s capacity would rise to 630 students — up from 445 today.

The plan would add a gym, cafeteria with a stage so that it could double as an auditorium, new administration area, new media center and a new two-story wing of classrooms while renovating existing spaces to make better use of them.

Shover said architects looked to teachers to tell them “all the pieces or parts they need for that school to function the way you want it to function.”

For example, while architects plan to make two larger classrooms out of three existing classrooms by removing the walls between them, some existing classrooms would remain the smaller size for uses such as special education, occupational and physical therapy, and intervention.

A commons area would tie the new additions together with the existing school, Shover said.

Bassel honored

The Public Building Authority also saw elevations Thursday of what the new entrance to the school could look like.

“We want to put a new face on the building based on access to the site,” Shover explained.

Shover noted the elevations “mimic” the front of the old Bassel School, which was completed in 1921-22 and demolished in 2001, according to previous stories in The Daily Times.

“We want to pay homage and tribute to the old Bassel School,” Bell said, noting the cupola, arched windows and pilasters on the front hearken to Bassel’s architecture.

“We want (Alcoa Intermediate) to have a sense of arrival,” Shover added, noting having a new front would aid security in that visitors would not have to “drive all over campus” looking for the entrance.

Phasing discussed

The entire project was estimated to cost $24 million last year, but Barry Brooke, with LawlerWood, told the Public Building Authority that the city does not have $24 million right now.

Instead the city plans to issue bonds for half that next spring, Johnson said. The Alcoa Board of Commissioners approved a resolution July 10 that enables the city to reimburse itself up to $12 million for expenses incurred on the Alcoa Intermediate School project before the city issues the bonds.

“It will require a tax increase of some sort, but the impact on a typical resident won’t be too much,” Johnson said Thursday, explaining Alcoa is “caught in the middle” between the redevelopment of the former ALCOA Inc. West Plant being underway and starting to pay off with increased sales tax revenue. “We want to phase this thing so we won’t have to hit the tax rate all at once.”

The phasing has not been determined, though Brooke said he would suggest trying to do the cafeteria in the first phase.

“The gym is not as critical as feeding kids,” he said.

Meanwhile, Shover said putting “a new face on the school could get people excited” about the project and also would free up space in the existing school by moving the administrative suite and media center into a new part of the building.

“We want to get as many core items as we can in the first phase,” Brooke said, noting it may make sense to add the new wing of classrooms in the second phase.

Ray worried about construction being disruptive to teachers and students, but Brooke said plans were designed “to minimally touch the existing building” while school is in session.

Shover added that contractors typically meet with school personnel each week to discuss whether there are “atypical” things scheduled, such as standardized testing, that need to be taken into consideration during construction.

Meanwhile, Bell said that Alcoa’s summer break, which is 7 1/2 weeks, could be extended to up to 9 weeks, as it was when Alcoa High School was under construction.

“It will be disruptive,” he said. “The task is to try to minimize it as much as possible.”