Residents had a mixed response to the proposed changes in the Riverwood International Charter School reconstruction project at a Feb. 13 community meeting. While some thanked the Fulton County School System for shaving costs, others lamented features that would be lost.
The district is proposing to renovate the auditorium and performing arts spaces instead of rebuilding them to save money on the already over-budget project. The physical education spaces, including the gym, would be identical to the approved design, but reoriented. School system officials discussed the project at Board of Education member Gail Dean’s monthly community meeting, which was held in Riverwood’s auditorium and attended by parents and residents.
The new design, if approved, still would go an estimated $3.8 million over budget rather than $14.6 million for the current design. The approved budget for the entire project is $102.9 million. The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the proposal later this month at its Feb. 21 meeting.
“This is just great. I really appreciate what you have done to be fiscally responsible,” one resident said at the meeting.
An added bonus to the cost savings, officials said, is that the students won’t be without an auditorium for a year. Since it would only be renovated, the work would be done over two summers while school is not in session.
“We do not have to take the auditorium away for a year with this proposal,” said Doug Carey, the district’s director of capital planning.
Most concerns raised by residents at the meeting were about how the old and new parts of the school would look joined together. Carey said they plan to resurface the exterior of the old building with the same material used for the new construction, but details are still being worked out.
Riverwood Principal Chuck Gardner said overall he supports the idea, but understands the concerns about how the exterior would look.
“The aesthetics are the biggest things I’m worried about,” he said.
The changes would decrease the length students would need to walk to get to different parts of the building. Accessing the auditorium, field and gym for evening events would also be easier and more secure, Gardner said.
“Hats off to the team,” he said.
The plan would also provide enough room and funds to build a full-size practice field, which the school has never had, Gardner said.
“I can’t overstate how big of a deal that is,” he said.
The practice field and tennis courts would be built close to I-285 and Raider Drive, where the Georgia Department of Transportation has discussed building an interchange for its toll lanes project. Patrick Burke, the district’s chief operating officer, said there is no information about how the project would affect the school.
“We don’t have a clear picture from [GDOT] on the exact scope of what they’re doing,” he said.
The district had to make changes to the project to lower the costs, and realized the auditorium is already in an ideal location on the campus, Carey said.
“Why tear it out and put it right back where it was just for the sake of calling it new?” he said.
A parent at the meeting said she believed Riverwood’s auditorium seemed smaller than others in the district and that she hoped the school would be getting something bigger.
Riverwood’s auditorium currently has the district’s standard 600 seats and it will stay at that number, Carey said. The amount of seating required is not based on enrollment, he said.
Another aesthetic concern raised by a parent is the changes to the exterior of the media center. In the approved plan, most of the outside wall is covered with windows and open to sunlight, but under the proposal, it would be more enclosed by the auditorium and performing arts spaces, which may cut off light.
“Every decision has pros and cons,” Carey said. “That’s a con here. I’m not going to lie to you, but I think it’ll still be a good space even though it’s not the same as you saw before.”
Some residents argued some features should be axed to free up funds to build a pedestrian bridge from the school building to the parking lot sooner rather than later. Students constantly walking through the drop-off area is dangerous, she said.
“It’s a matter of time before something happens,” she said. “It’s a safety concern.”
The bridge is part of the master plan for the school, but there is not enough money to do it in this project. The bridge is estimated to cost $300,000 to $400,000, Carey said.
“I’m not going to argue that it’s not important, but we do have to take it piece by piece here,” he said.
One resident complained that the choices of furniture in the part that is already built need a second look. While many new schools, including some in Fulton County, opt for more modern seating and desks arrangements that can be moved around, standard desks were chosen for Riverwood, she said.
“We missed the mark big-time,” she said.
Gardner said that choice was made before he became principal, but he has been in discussions with the district about “retrofitting it over time” with adaptable seating.
Another mistake was the amount of lockers chosen, a resident said. They take up room and are not being used by students.
Gardner said the district has agreed to not install any more lockers, which will provide some cost savings and wider hallways.
“That was one of the things we caught they were nimble enough to change,” he said.