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Schools: to raze or renovate?

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Historic neighborhood schools are being torn down, replaced or abandoned at what the Utah Heritage Foundation calls an alarming rate.

But school districts' hands might be tied. Schools must be wheelchair accessible under federal law, meet seismic codes and be wired for technology that didn't exist 10 years ago, let alone 100. Sometimes, school officials say, it's more cost-effective to build new.

"It is an old building and part of our history," Richard Tolley, business administrator for the Tooele School District, said of Central School, which the foundation calls threatened. "But the work to go into restoring that building is major, and you still end up with an old building."

The nonprofit Utah Heritage Foundation is working with districts statewide to save and fix up old schools. The efforts follow those by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has named historic neighborhood schools to its America's Most Endangered Historic Places list.

"There are policies in place with school districts that judge new buildings ahead of old buildings," said the foundation's Kirk Huffaker. "We're not saying we shouldn't have the best facilities for our kids. But . . . the best facilities can be historic schools, and it can be financially prudent for school districts to invest in those buildings."

Salt Lake City School District is a case in point — sort of. It spent $20 million to renovate West High, built in 1914. At the same time, it spent $35 million to build a new East High because the old one had been damaged by fire.

Both projects are sources of community pride. But the West committee probably would have looked at building new had it known about the extra money that was needed above estimates and for other surprises old buildings contain, said Karen Derrick, a school board member and former committee chairwoman.

The school board adopted a rule to build new if renovation is 75 percent or more of the cost of a new building, in part due to the West High experience.

"It can be a very fine line and a very difficult decision to make of when or how you determine what is more valuable: historical significance of a building or educational advantages students have when they go to school in a new building," said Derrick, a former Heritage Foundation volunteer.

But the issue is a no-brainer for Salt Lake resident Don Gren.

He and neighbors are working to save Douglas School property leased by Valley Mental Health and declared surplus by the school board this year. Several agencies have expressed interest in the property. The foundation views the 1915 school as eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

"(It is) from an era past when we had architects and artisans and crafts people who made incredible structures with timeless character, something that I don't think is true of the 1950s, '60s and '70s," Gren said. "I have a difficult time with the throw-away mentality. It seems very shortsighted."

While Provo's Maeser Elementary is on the foundation's endangered list, there are no immediate plans to raze it. The school district wants to house programs for at-risk students and teacher training there and shuttle Maeser students to a new school to be built in growing southeast Provo. Some residents fear how the change will affect the community.

Maeser, built in 1898 in a historic Provo neighborhood, is Utah's only local landmark to be used as a school, the foundation reported.

But sometimes school architecture might not rise to that level in preservation value, said Granite Board of Education President Lynn Davidson. Some Granite schools, which the foundation says are threatened by planning efforts, have so many additions they've lost their historic face.

"Our job is to maximize taxpayers' dollars and educate children," Davidson said. "I believe in saving old buildings. But unless somebody is willing to step up and provide the money over and above what taxpayers are going to pay . . . chances of buildings being saved are, in my best judgment, probably remote."

The Heritage Foundation tries to help. For example, it is seeking grants to help renovate Ogden High, which is recognized as a national historic landmark, Huffaker said.

In Tooele, former resident Larry Deppe is striving to save Central, built in 1929 and declared surplus in 1994. A grant-funded study showed the building was structurally sound but needed a new roof and electrical and mechanical systems, the foundation reports.

But the district's Tolley says it is not wheelchair accessible or seismically sound. The school board decided it would be more financially feasible to build Northlake Elementary than renovate Central.

Deppe is lobbying to persuade the City Council or County Commission to take over the building, maybe to use as a community center. But if no tenant is found before Sept. 1, the building goes.

"We realize you can't save every single building . . . (but) a number of historic buildings in Tooele have been taken down," such as the 1867-built church on Main and Vine streets, said Deppe of Kaysville. "I think the community needs to step forward. It can't just be the voice of a former resident."

Also listed by the foundation as threatened by use changes, demolition or maintenance: Honeyville School, Box Elder County; old Bingham High and Magna's Webster School, owned by Kennecott; Old North School, Heber; Rees School, Spanish Fork; Grand County Middle School, Moab; Woodward School, St. George.

E-MAIL: jtcook@desnews.com