TRAVERSE CITY — The students who have walked the halls of Traverse City Central Grade School have both studied history and seen history made before their eyes.
The 100th anniversary of Central Grade is just around the bend, having been built and occupied in 1922.
The children in those desks have experienced the Great Depression, desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement, the assassination of one president, the resignation of another and the election of America’s first Black president. They’ve hid under desks during nuclear bomb drills, lived through foreign attacks in 1941 and 2001, seen astronauts land and walk on the moon.
As all of those moments and other historic milestones occurred outside the walls of Central Grade, the infrastructure within those walls has aged each day of those 99 years.
Updating and renovating the Central Grade has been on the priority list at TCAPS for decades, likely dating back all the way to 1970 when the third floor was closed and the seventh- through ninth-grade students housed there moved to West Junior High. The classrooms on the third floor still sit empty and have not been used since.
A little light on the horizon could mean major upgrades to the soon-to-be centenarian school.
TCAPS Associate Superintendent Christine Thomas-Hill provided a full update on the district’s properties, including Central Grade School, to the board of education Monday. Thomas-Hill went down the laundry list of needed updates and repairs at Central, wrapping up the totality of the project by saying that pretty much everything was on that list.
All of the school’s major systems — electrical, heating and cooling, water — are “beyond their life expectancy.” There are structural concerns. A new roof is needed as is a dedicated bus loop and areas for cars and students that would alleviate crowding issues during dropoff and pickup. The school also has issues with Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, Thomas-Hill said.
As if to show just how badly the school is in need of renovations, a steam pipe burst in the basement boiler room during a tour that Thomas-Hill and TCAPS Superintendent John VanWagoner gave to a few school board trustees.
“Right in the middle of our tour,” Thomas-Hill said. “I promise I did not do that on purpose.”
Board President Scott Newman-Bale was there when the pipe burst. He said the scope of the needs at Central Grade is “so large” and that he was “overwhelmed by the complexity of the situation” after touring the building.
“It’s no one’s fault. It’s just an old building,” he said. “It’s got weird stairs going into bathrooms and classroom doors that are narrow and heaters that are old. It’s bizarre.”
TCAPS is in the midst of another big project at the moment — the construction of a new Montessori school on Franke Road. That undertaking comes on the heels of building Eastern Elementary School, which opened in 2018.
Central Grade could be next on the list, but that likely is several years away from even beginning.
Voters approved a $107 million capital projects bond nearly three years ago. However, the major renovations to Central Grade School were not included in that list, other than about $650,000 to be spent upgrades to security and relocating the main office.
Thomas-Hill said leaving Central Grade off the list was done on purpose because time was needed to discuss what was needed and then clearly communicate that to the community ahead of a future bond proposal.
VanWagoner broached the possibility of going out to the voters again in 2024 for another bond to cover such a large undertaking. He clarified Monday that he did not want to confuse the community and promise that something is already “signed, sealed and delivered” but that conversations with the board, district staff, the community and others could start soon.
“It’s time,” VanWagoner said. “It’s time to deal with all these elements. It’s time to deal with Central Grade.”
Thomas-Hill said there is nothing specific yet on a possible bond proposal and that conversations with the board have just begun. No project list, budget or monetary figure have been set, but they’ve started to prioritize future projects.
TCAPS officials last received an estimate on the cost to renovate Central Grade in 2016. The projection then was about $25 million, Thomas-Hill said.
VanWagoner said a “deep conversation” has to happen with all stakeholders and that the process cannot be rushed.
“Whenever you ask for a dime from the taxpayers, they deserve an opportunity to give thoughts on it all,” he said.
There is much to consider, Newman-Bale said — and because the community is paying for it, the community gets a say in it. Newman-Bale said it likely is going to be difficult for the community to come to a consensus on renovating Central Grade and that whatever decision is made will be made subject to the district’s “bigger picture.”
Finding the overriding goal will be key. Newman-Bale said that could be preserving history and architecture, being fiscally responsible, making the building functional or providing the best teaching and learning environment for staff and students.
“I think the argument is that it’s going to be all of the above,” Newman-Bale said.
Other trustees agree. Treasurer Matt Anderson said the time seems right to begin these discussions with the 100th anniversary coming up, and Vice President Erica Moon Mohr said Central Grade is “part of Traverse City history.”
Conflict in ideas is likely, Newman-Bale said.
“Even if the entire board was historians who loved old buildings, that doesn’t necessarily mean that is what we should do or what the community wants,” Newman-Bale said. “This is probably one of the most loaded issues facing TCAPS, and it’s going to take years to figure out.”