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The high school's main building, the Gordon Lee, is seen in the foreground. In the background is the Olive Lee Building, which would be torn down to make room for more parking.

Chickamauga City Schools' announcement in May 2015 that historic buildings on Gordon Lee High School's campus likely would have to be torn down caused a stir in the community.

Though moving forward with that goal in mind, the board, in conjunction with the City Council, has decided to leave the decision of final funding up to the public.

A referendum will be held on May 24.

"We'll be letting the community vote on issuing a bond on the remaining amount to complete the project," said Chickamauga City Schools Superintendent Melody Day. "We have acquired funding through a special state allotment for specific projects. We have enough for the building of a new facility, but we're short on the things the state won't contribute to, such as the demolition of the old school, construction of parking lots and soil sampling.

"If the public votes for it, then we'll move forward. Otherwise, we'll have to rework facility plans."

The board has to finalize plans for the state Legislature by February, but won't be able to move forward until the public votes on the issue, she explained.

As it stands, the main building would be replaced with a new one. The Olive Lee building next door to the main building would be knocked down to make room for a parking lot. The Tom Lee building, on the other side of the main building, would remain, but it wouldn't be used for class — it might house both a museum and the alumni club.

These buildings were constructed 85 years ago, and today, there are major issues with wiring and plumbing, Day said. Still, since the initial announcement, there has been debate on the pros and cons of renovating the old buildings versus constructing new ones.

"No one wants the old buildings to go; they're beautiful buildings and staples of the community," Day said. "But renovation would ultimately be too expensive to bring it up to code. We would ultimately have to demo much of the [main] building anyway, and we'd have less classrooms if we renovated, since some would have to turn into elevators and bathrooms to match code."

She said it is a "top priority" for the new building to mimic the look of the old.

"We all love the school, but it is very much in disrepair," said Day. "We need a modern building to give our students the opportunities they need."

The majority of funding for the new building would come from the state in the form of a special purpose, interest-free loan. The value of the city's ESPLOST is roughly $3 million, Day said. The state would provide the remainder — between $10 million and $12 million — interest-free, to be paid back by the city over a long period of time.

The referendum will be on whether to extend the city's ESPLOST preemptively (ESPLOST must traditionally be voted in by residents every five years), ensuring the school system has access to the funds. Although the official referendum hasn't been written yet, the vote will be for no more than $2 million in ESPLOST to be used for the demolition, Day said. The city would then issue bonds to get access to the ESPLOST funds immediately, and would pay back the bonds over time.

She noted that the vote will not be for any additional taxation. The same 1-cent addition to the city's sales tax will be used for this project.

"We were actually approached by the state with this during the facility review," she said. "There were different options, and we thoroughly reviewed each one.

"Another issue is, we've determined that the same project would cost an additional $1 million if we waited a year to acquire more funds, due to increases in cost," Day added. "So it's really now or never. We have to do it now or we'll never really be able to do it."

The high school renovation/construction debate has been going on in the midst of the planned renovation of Gordon Lee Middle School, which Day said will definitely move forward once the school year has ended.

"We want to do what the public wants. Either way, we'll move forward and try to do what's best for the kids in our community," she said. "I've had a lot of very positive comments already on the idea of a new [high] school. The community would definitely benefit from a new facility, and I believe that once we all understand just what the construction of a new building will mean and what a renovation would cost, we'll make the right choice."

Staff writer Tim Omarzu contributed to this story.

Email Shane Foley at sfoley@timesfreepress.com.

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