Members raised pointed concerns about aesthetics and safety, but designs for the new Sharpsburg Elementary School still received unanimous approval Tuesday from the Washington County Board of Education.
“This is our first shot at a proposed look for the school,” said Rob Rollins, director of facilities planning and development. “In the end, it’ll look similar, but not exactly like what you saw today.”
The schematic design shows the new 59,749-square-foot school being built at the rear of the current building along Shepherdstown Pike, with separate entrances for buses and cars.
It also reflects significantly larger play areas and recreational fields on land previously purchased by the county, expanding the school property’s overall footprint.
The existing school, dating back to the 1930s, would later be demolished for future site amenities, although officials hope to retain the existing brick wall that fronts along Sharpsburg’s main thoroughfare, architect Ran Ilkovitch told board members.
Prior to the panel’s 6-0 vote to approve the schematic design, which serves as a general site plan for the $23.8 million project, board members took turns airing their concerns with the initial design.
The proposed exterior, featuring a mixture of rustic and modern elements, drew negative comments from several board members, who criticized the combination of stone and wood-like sections modeled after barns, along with contemporary blue-and-white paneling in other areas.
Ilkovitch, a principal at Smolen Emr Ilkovitch (SEI) Architects of Rockville, Md., said the firm attempted to capitalize on topography changes at the site while creating a design that was reflective of the surrounding town, which is rich in Civil War history and rural, farmstead appeal.
But board members didn’t quite agree.
“Quite honestly, when I looked at the pictures, I wasn’t impressed with it,” board member Mike Guessford said of the exterior. “But I understand the planks fit into the nature of Antietam battlefield and the history of Sharpsburg. It’s a different looking school.”
Board member Jacqueline Fischer didn’t mince words, calling it “the ugliest building I have ever seen in my life.”
But Fischer said she had bigger concerns about a proposed learning studio and instructional resource center, which had large steps without railings that she saw as a potential falling hazard.
“That is a very big danger to me, and I want to see that area changed significantly,” she said after the meeting.
Other safety concerns raised by board members included exit and egress routes in case of an emergency, particularly in a few areas that could become bottlenecks at the two-level school being built with a state-rated capacity of 471 pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade students.
“I just see that as a disaster waiting to happen,” Guessford said, noting that he hopes adequate input from teachers and school administrators is considered in the design. “… If the teachers say, ‘This isn’t going to work,’ let’s make sure we can make it work for them.”
Schools Superintendent Boyd Michael assured the board that the design would comply with already-strict fire codes, while striking a balance between safe exit routes and security by limiting the number of access points into the building.
“Everything has changed now with security,” he said. “It used to be that every classroom had a door out to the playground.”
Ilkovitch said the firm — which was awarded the school’s design contract worth $864,746 in March —would take the board’s comments into account, as they continue discussions with officials to iron out further details.
“We tend to push a boundary, then we pull back to see where the sweet spot is for a project,” he told the board. “We will not leave it how it is until you are happy.”
The board will have more chances to provide further input, as design work continues for the better part of a year, before final construction drawings are due for review by the school board, county and state officials next spring, Rollins said.
Construction is expected to begin in the fall of 2018, with the current building remaining in service until the new school is ready for students in fall 2020.
School board member Pieter Bickford was absent from Tuesday’s meeting.
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