By LESLIE COLLINS
January 1, 2014
Two months. That’s how long Northeast residents have to find a re-use strategy and buyer for the former Thacher Elementary School. Otherwise, the 116-year-old building will be demolished.
Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) Board of Education planned to approve a demolition contract for Thacher during its Dec. 18 meeting, but a petition spearheaded by Northeast residents influenced the board to table the item until late February. About 200 individuals signed the online petition which asked the district to halt the demolition for six months to allow residents to find a plan to save the school.
“Due to the history of it being in the community for so long and so many children being educated there, it’s become a landmark of sorts,” said Northeast resident Dorri Partain who created the petition. “The neighborhood has changed so much around it, but it’s still there. “(Two months) is better than nothing, but it is a short time frame.”
“Two months is more than I expected,” said Indian Mound Neighborhood Association Secretary Bryan Stalder, “so I appreciate they were able to do that for us.”
Stalder arranged for Shannon Jaax, director of KCPS’ Repurposing Initiative, to attend the Dec. 16 Indian Mound Neighborhood Association meeting to discuss Thacher.
About 15 residents attended the meeting to voice their opinions on the former school.
As part of the school district’s right-sizing initiative to balance the budget and maximize resources, the district shuttered 21 school buildings in 2010, bringing the total number of shuttered sites to 30.
In 2011, the district hired Jaax to oversee the re-purposing initiative aimed at marketing and selling the schools to the public and finding re-uses.
During Jaax’s first month with the district, Thacher caught on fire.
“It had been closed in 2010 and had been a target of vandalism almost from the minute it had closed,” Jaax said. “Some of our school sites have been closed for multiple years and we have no break-ins; we have some where it’s a real issue and Thacher was one of those.”
KCPS believes the fire stemmed from individuals attempting to concoct drugs.
As a result of the fire, a portion of the roof collapsed in the 1914 addition and the top floor continues to remain exposed to the elements. Both the 1914 and 1898 building have water damage along with mold issues. Vandals stripped Thacher of copper and other metals, leaving the building mechanically non-functional.
Partain pointed out that even during the late 1990s, the school looked less than stellar.
“You could see that it hadn’t been maintained as well as it should have been. The school district just didn’t want to put the money into it,” Partain said.
KCPS officials first met with the community regarding Thacher in June of 2011, and another meeting which detailed Thacher’s condition and re-use options was held in November of 2011. At the time, Thacher was being marketed with the former Northeast Middle School; both of the schools shared an 8-acre site. Two interested parties came forward, and each proposed constructing a grocery store. Both parties planned to demolish Thacher and Northeast Middle to make room for the grocery store.
In 2012, KCPS listed the two sites with a brokerage team as a combined package with a fair market value of $1 million. In order to sell a building, KCPS must receive fair market value, among other requirements.
As part of the right-sizing initiative, KCPS eliminated its middle school system and moved the 7th and 8th grades into the high schools. Parents were less than enthused. Listening to community feedback, KCPS officials began to reconsider the middle school idea last year and the KCPS Board of Education voted earlier this year to re-instate middle schools beginning during the fall of 2014. Northeast Middle School and Central Middle School are being renovated to serve that purpose. With Northeast Middle now separate from Thacher, the grocery store concept fell through.
“We’ve been trying to find as many re-uses as possible for sites, but we knew we weren’t going to be able to save every single building,” Jaax said.
Knowing that KCPS would likely adopt the middle school system again, KCPS pulled away from actively marketing Thacher over the past year.
“There will always be limited uses that are viable for that site,” Jaax said of Thacher.
To preserve the safety of the middle school students, the re-purposing team has recommended that Thacher be demolished.
“We have seen so many of our turn of the century structures just wiped out,” Northeast resident Kathy Drews said during the Indian Mound meeting. “You’re taking away an important piece of our history to give us a flat piece of land that people play games on. We just have to stand up and say we would like to find a different solution. We really haven’t had enough opportunity to get out there and find solutions and find a different buyer.”
“We’ve been talking about this for more than two years,” Jaax replied. “I 100 percent understand that we’ve got folks in the community that don’t want to lose the asset; our challenge as a district is we’re re-opening a school next year and the concern about having that be safe for our kids when we do so.”
Northeast resident Lacey Henggeler agreed.
“As much as I appreciate historical architecture,” Henggeler said, “being a middle school teacher I can definitely speak to the tantalizing jewel of exploration that would be there with middle schoolers on that (adjoining) campus day in and day out. Even if it were secured with fences, they’re very resourceful.”
Partain told Northeast News that residents must work together to find re-use options for Thacher.
“We need to work together, or it was all for nothing,” she said. “If we can’t come up with a plan that’s viable or funding, then we’re just going to have to let the building go, as sad as that is.”
Drews, however, remained adamant about saving Thacher.
“We want the best for our children, but we can’t help but feel what’s best for them is to understand and appreciate our history,” Drews said. “We just don’t want to throw away our buildings.”
To share Thacher re-use ideas or find out how you can help save Thacher, email Stalder at email@example.com.