By Margaret Foster | Online Only | July 15, 2009
There's a legal battle under way in Beaumont, Tex., over the fate of a 1922 school.
Citing the need for a new school, the Beaumont Independent School District voted last November to tear down the South Park School, used as a middle school until last year. In response, more than 2,600 residents in the city of 110,000 signed a petition urging the school district to consider alternate plans for adaptive use. When workers began pre-demolition asbestos abatement last month, the Beaumont Heritage Society filed an injunction to halt demolition. On July 1, a district judge issued a temporary restraining order that prevents the school's destruction until a hearing can be held July 28.
"[The school district] has ignored the will of the people, and they've never done a cost analysis [comparing restoration to demolition]," says attorney Michael Getz, who is representing the Beaumont Heritage Society, founded in 1968. In addition, Getz says, the Beaumont Independent School District did not adequately notify the public of its decision. "It was apparently something that was done behind closed doors." (The school district did advertise its Nov. 6 meeting to "discuss the construction and design of the South Park Middle School.")
In 2007 the school district commissioned an engineering study, which found the building structurally sound. Despite that report, officials opted to pursue demolition.
Officials at the Texas Historical Commission say they are "concerned" that the school district did not conduct a feasibility study of the building's potential reuse.
"The proper expertise, of an architect experienced in working with historic schools, should have been brought to bear," wrote Mark Wolfe, chief deputy executive director of the commission, in a June 23 letter to Superintendent Carrol Thomas.
Wolfe points out that state law requires the school district to notify the Texas Historical Commission of any project that affects more than five acres of public land. In this case the district failed to notify the commission.
The Beaumont Independent School District has halted demolition for now, in accordance with the temporary restraining order. "It's taxpayer's money that's being eaten up by the will of the few rather than the majority," Jessie Haynes, the school district's assistant to the superintendent, told the Beaumont Enterprise this month. (Haynes did not return phone calls from Preservation.)
But Darlene Chodzinski, executive director of the Beaumont Heritage Society, says the South Park School is important to more than just locals because Lamar University was founded in the building. "It's not just a few people," she insists. "They have ignored the protest of not only 3,000 people who have signed the petition, but we tried to talk to them about it ? We pretty much were stonewalled. The school district will not even listen to any arguments. They really have not made any efforts at all to preserve the building."
Although the final decision to raze the building rests in the hands of its owner, the school district, the mayor of Beaumont has voiced her opinion: "It is my hope that the School District and those that want to preserve the South Park School can come together and settle on some compromise that is good for Beaumont," Beaumont Mayor Becky Ames, whose mother grew up in the South Park neighborhood and attended South Park School, said in a statement. "If it is economically feasible, I believe every effort should be made to preserve history.