Friends of Claflin ask school board to help save historic facility

Leaders of the grassroots group trying to save the building that housed the first school built for black children in Columbus want the Muscogee County School Board to help.

The Rev. Richard Jessie and Alexis Jarrett presented the $10.8M proposal from the Friends of Historic Claflin during the board's meeting Monday night. They asked the board to contribute $8 million - and the Friends would raise the rest -- by putting it on the school district's pending list of projects for the next Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. Superintendent David Lewis plans to submit that list to the board in January and ask for authorization of a March referendum that would renew the 1 percent sales tax for another five years. The SPLOST Muscogee County voters approved in 2009 for the school district's capital projects expires after Dec. 31.

The proposal, based on a feasibility study from 2WR Architects of Columbus, would turn the 146-year-old Claflin facility's two buildings totaling 36,557 square feet into a multipurpose education center. It would include a Headstart preschool program, a school for autistic students, adult education programs, the Columbus Urban Debate League, the Columbus Black History Museum and Archive, a senior day care, a veterans service center and classrooms for local colleges. It also would contain a welcome center, souvenir shop and food court featuring local cuisine.

No board member voiced their opinion about the proposal. After the meeting, Lewis told the Ledger-Enquirer, "I understand the historical significance of the school, but, at this point in time, I don't foresee it being a priority, considering the other needs of the district going forward."

The Ledger-Enquirer shared Lewis' reaction with Jessie, who responded, "He hasn't read the proposal. We just gave it to them at the meeting tonight. We're asking the school board to let the community decide."

In April, city officials said they couldn't find any developers interested in restoring Claflin and ownership of the property likely would revert to the federal government unless funding sources were identified and a plan was devised to preserve the building. Jessie said the group was given time to present a proposal and the deadline is Nov. 26.

In board action, the following recommendations from Lewis were approved by unanimous votes:

A memorandum of understanding with the Columbus Consolidated Government to give the agencies two years to finalize a land swap.

In the proposal, the school district would receive 33 acres along Fort Benning Road in exchange for 21.44 acres at the former Marshall Middle School, 8 acres at Brewer Elementary School and 5.3 acres at the former Tillinghurst Elementary School.

The school district would use the Fort Benning Road property to build a new Spencer High School. Myles Caggins, the district's operations and facilities chief, said it's his understanding that the city would use the Tillinghurst property as part redesigning the southeast Columbus intersection known as the Spider Web, where Columbus Council unanimously voted Aug. 26 to build an underpass under the railroad tracks to alleviate traffic delays. The excess land at Brewer would be used to build a road connecting Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Buena Vista Road, and the Marshall property would be used for unspecified development, Caggins said.

City manager Isaiah Hugley declined to discuss the proposal when the Ledger-Enquirer reported on it last week because it hadn't been presented to Columbus Council. The proposal is scheduled to be presented at today's council meeting, Hugley said then.

Hired the firm French & Associates of Columbus to design and supervise the installation of artificial turf at Kinnett Stadium. The estimated cost of the project is $790,000, funded by the 2009 SPLOST.

Hired the firm Barnes Gibson Patel LLC of Columbus as the architect to renovate the Jordan High School auditorium. The estimated cost of the project is $1.2 million, funded by the 2009 SPLOST.

Promoted retired Lt. Col. Roger Barros from deputy director of Army instruction to director of Army instruction.

Promoted assistant director of school nutrition Susan Schlader to director of school nutrition.

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter@MarkRiceLE.