To some, the Limestone County Schools Central Office on Jefferson Street looks like it could have been transplanted from a bomb-damaged section of Beirut.
The county’s old jail offices — left standing when the jail was demolished — are still hanging on the Central Office like a hideous brick albatross.
One immediately questions how this vista encourages parents new to the area to enroll their students here.
“I think our schools are great,” Superintendent Dr. Tom Sisk told The News Courier Tuesday. “We have good students and great teachers, and when people move into our county, their first impression of our county schools is when they see the bricks and mortar at the Central Office. They are going to make a presumption that we are not providing a good service.”
But, that is only part of the problem at the Central Office.
When it pours, rain seeps in around hundreds of thousands of dollars in computer equipment purchased for staff, teachers and students of Limestone County Schools.
Like ducks, those who work at the Central Office have learned to adapt. They restrict new shipments of computers to the center of the basement, about the only known dry place on the bottom floor. They recently moved a row of computers in the teacher-training lab away from the wall because overhead tiles — which are changed out periodically — cannot be trusted to contain the rain.
In the lobby of the building, the gateway to the public, the floor tiles are buckling because rain from the roof, seeps through the ceiling and freefalls two floors to the lobby floor and splatters onto the tiles and surrounding vending machines and storage boxes containing records.
In one basement room stands a stack of $400,000 worth of computer equipment; it is the brain that runs the entire school system’s computer network. The room has the faint odor of a mildewed gym sock. In fairness, Limestone County had been deluged just two days before.
Standing in the room on Tuesday, Superintendent Dr. Tom Sisk pointed to another small stack of computers and said, “There are $37,000 worth of computer equipment that have been damaged because of the moisture.”
It doesn’t take a math teacher to tell you, computers plus water equals disaster.
In addition to leaking, the Central Office is bursting at the seams. There are boxes of records stored in the lobby, boxes of records stored in offices and a row of file cabinets filled with records lining the first-floor hallway, which makes navigating to offices and exits more difficult.
Sisk is looking into moving basement floor offices to an empty floor of the Limestone County Water and Sewer Authority building, which is located about a block south on Jefferson Street.
LCWSA General Manager Byron Cook confirmed that school officials plan to meet with authority officials to tour the building and see if it would fit the bill.
The question is who will pay for it.
Limestone County Commission Chairman Stanley Menefee told The News Courier this week that the schools want the commission to pay the rent for additional office space. (Under state law, the commission is responsible for providing a space for the superintendent and his offices.)
“That decision is up to the commission, but I’m not in favor of that,” Menefee said. “We just can’t be doing that.”
Menefee said he believes the state law in question refers to the superintendent and his immediate staff only, not the entire Central Office staff. Meaning, he believes the county should continue to maintain the current Central Office but not pay for additional rent for more office space.
Sisk disagrees with Menefee’s assessment of the law.
“Alabama state law clearly states that they (the county) are responsible for any additional space,” he said.
Sisk would like county commissioners to see the Central Office to assess the situation themselves and make a decision.
To fix or not to fix?
To remedy the water problem at the Central Office, the commission will have to repair the existing office space or move the office elsewhere. Some believe the commission should take advantage of low interest rates and simply build a new Central Office, which would solve both the space and the water issues.
On Sept. 17, commissioners took a step to try to improve the look of the building. They agreed to tear down the defunct and dilapidated jail offices. They will seek bids on that work and should know soon if they can afford to raze the jail office portion.
Under the previous administration, the County Commission had decided to tear down the old jail but keep the jail offices. The plan was to tie the jail offices to the Central Office and add an elevator because law requires public buildings to be accessible to the disabled.
However, those plans changed in 2010 when voters elected a new County Commission chairman.
Menefee said he does not believe the plan to tie together and renovate the jail offices and the Central Office was practical due to the age of the jail offices and the varying height of both buildings. He has repeatedly said he would prefer that the Central Office be moved, possibly to Elm Street, where there are other county buildings. But, nothing has been done, other than the commission agreeing to try to tear down the old jail offices.
Many school officials would like the commission and the schools to look at building a new Central Office, just as Athens City Schools recently did on U.S. 31. Sisk believes the county could do that for $2.5 to $3 million. He said the schools could take advantage of low interest rates to do now what will have to be done later anyway.
He pointed out that current low interest rates recently allowed county schools to refinance some debt and save $700,000 in interest.