Work on the new Commerce High School has resumed. The first visible signs, the erection of a freestanding "practice gymnasium" behind the current facility should take place this fall.
Feeling that it had responded to concerns about the school's design raised by a citizens' group, following a two-and-a-half-hour presentation last Wednesday night, the board voted unanimously to move ahead with the project.
A month ago, the school board ordered its architect to cease work on the project, which was to have gone to bid about now, said Superintendent James E. "Mac" McCoy.
"The architects have to finish the design. They're still looking at some modifications for the second gym," he said Thursday morning.
McCoy said he expects to get a new timeline for the project this week. The board will have to advertise for bids, after which it will hold a public bid opening.
According to McCoy, there is a three-month process for ordering and receiving the steel for the new gym, which must be completed before the current gym can be demolished to begin construction of the school - which will include a new and larger gymnasium.
The $18 million undertaking is expected to take 24 months to build, according to Clark McDonald of Charles Black Construction, the general contractor for the new school.
The school board's action enraged members of People Excited About Commerce Education (PEACE), a group formed over concerns and questions about the design of the new school. While about 60 people attended the called board meeting in the cafeteria of the middle school, the board did not allow questions or comments from the audience. Once the presentations - which included comments from more than a dozen individuals, several of them more than once - were completed, board member Bill Davis read a prepared statement making a motion to resume work on the project.
It passed unanimously without discussion.
Last week's meeting was called to respond to PEACE's concerns, which it had submitted in writing to the board. School staff, including McCoy, assistant superintendent Joy Tolbert, principal Donnie Drew, science teacher Matthew Dahlke, business education teacher Jonnie Blair (by letter) board chairman Dr. Paul Sergent and former chairman Steve Perry all made presentations, as did Doug Breaux of the architectural firm Robertson Loia Roof, Jeff Couch, also of RLR, McDonald, attorneys Phil Hartley and Tread Syfan, and Commerce chief of police John Gaissert (by letter).
Breaux described the ""program" by which the plan was developed, starting with objectives and priorities, and Tolbert discussed staff involvement in the planning.
"It wasn't always pretty," she said. "It was a challenge for the architects, but they continued to work with our people until our people were satisfied, and we have some strong personalities on our staff."
She, like Drew and Gaissert, discussed the "compact design" of the plan and its advantages for managing students.
Dahlke, who read Blair's letter of support for the plan as related to the business lab designs and staff involvement in the process, said he was "thrilled with our (staff) role in the (planning) process."
Breaux went over the layout of the building, explaining the reasons various aspects were placed where they are, discussed the elevations on the property, which was one of the group's issues.
"From the front, within 300 feet, it is going to rise 14 feet," he said of the site. "It will make for a very stately, appropriate setting. It will be very attractive."
Couch went over the "green" features, addressing another PEACE issue, pointing out materials, features and products he said will improve energy efficiency.
Breaux, Drew and McCoy also addressed the decision to build a one-floor building instead of the two-story structure PEACE advocates.
Drew said a single-floor structure is easier to administer. McCoy cited a state school safety expert and read Gaissert's letter pointing out potential problems with bullying or crime in stairwells, the greater difficulty evacuating a two-floor structure and the challenges of "securing" it in a time of emergency.
Breaux said that the necessity of stairs and elevators would add 5,000 square feet to the building and pointed out increased costs for extra steel and labor he said would result in a two-floor building costing more than a single-floor facility.
"We do believe a one-story building is more cost-effective than a two-story building," he concluded.
Sergent addressed the performing arts center, another PEACE issue, basically saying that with the funds available, the 480-seat auditorium is "the best we can do."
Perry defended the board's hiring of Robertson Loia Roof, indicated some displeasure with PEACE's involvement and blamed the addition of nearly 11,000 square feet in athletic facilities at the gym for adding $1.2 million to the cost of the project. That extra space, he said, led to the decision to build the new gym simultaneous to the rest of the school, which at the time would have left the school without a gymnasium for one to two years. He called the decision to build the "practice gym" the board's attempt "to compromise."