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A History Lesson from Jackson

Preserving old schools can pay millions in dividends

February 22, 2004 | By Mac McClelland
and Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Mac McClelland
  Jackson High School: Grand spaces and cutting edge facilities

Are old high schools really unfit for serving modern-day curriculums? Planning consultants say today’s students need more than the 25 acres that a typical urban high school offers for athletic fields and parking lots. Engineers say the old wiring, unusual rooms, and antique heating and cooling systems are too expensive to renovate.

Nevertheless, public school officials in Jackson, a southern Michigan city of approximately 36,000 residents, rejected such conventional wisdom. They hired independent consultants to help them determine renovation’s true costs; in 1999 residents overwhelmingly approved a millage request for a $24.9 million reconstruction of the 66-year-old Jackson High School.
Today more than 1,700 students in four grades spend their days in a beautiful building that blends grand spaces with the needs of students who expect cutting-edge facilities.

And Jackson High’s renovation shows how modernizing the past brings educational excellence and economic stability. The Michigan Land Use Institute compared the value of homes within one-half mile of an operating elementary school with the value of homes in a similar neighborhood with a closed elementary school. The study found that, over a decade, home prices increased 3 percent a year faster in the neighborhood with the open school than in the one with the closed school. Had property values in the second neighborhood risen by the same amount, it would have added almost $2 million to city, county, and school tax revenues.

Keeping neighborhood schools open in cities increases property
values, adds tax
revenues, and
preserves community history and character.

Jackson’s citizens didn’t know this when they decided to renovate rather than build new outside of town, but their instinct for historic preservation told them that abandoning the old school might hurt the city’s economy and spirit.

So the district spent $20,000 for an independent study of the building by a local architectural firm, Dabbert and Flemming. The study debunked the myth that it’s more expensive to renovate than to build new; in fact, renovation was between 20 and 50 percent less expensive, even when adding a modern science wing.

The board sold the renovation to voters by recruiting two respected community educational leaders to spearhead the millage campaign — Earl Hollman, Jackson High’s principal from 1947 to 1978, and Bob DuBois, an admired teacher and administrator. The bond passed 3,623 to 740.

The toughest part was executing the project while school was in session. It wasn’t pretty, but there are few regrets. 

“This is my third classroom in three years,” sighed Pamela Kunkel-Chappell, an English teacher. “But I’m thrilled the decision was made to remodel — this is a great school and a great place to teach.”

“I’m glad it’s over,” said Jim Braham, the principal. “Running a school through a three-year building renovation process has its challenges. But everyone’s been great — from the overwhelming community support on the bond issue to the kids, teachers, and parents.  And the end result is spectacular — it’s like having a new building.”

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