The Guilford County Board of Education has enraged supporters of the Allen Jay Rock Gym.
It is nothing new for the school board to anger members of the Allen Jay community in south High Point, which has gotten the short end of the stick from Guilford County Schools for years. But the latest insult to the community is more like a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.
Members of the Allen Jay Alumni Association, High Point Mayor Becky Smothers and North Carolina National Register Coordinator Ann Swallow will gather on Saturday, Oct. 20 at the 1939 fieldstone gym, built as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project, to celebrate the gym being placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The school board, with its usual politically tone-deaf timing, on Oct. 9 voted to postpone a $1.9 million renovation of the gym, while at the same time voting to spend $1 million on Guilford County's other WPA rock gym at Summerfield Elementary School, which is already in good shape.
The Allen Jay community, which has been watching the Allen Jay Rock Gym crumble for years, is, to put it mildly, not happy. The rock gym is at Allen Jay Middle School, which was Allen Jay High School until its last class graduated in 1979. Before that, the original Allen Jay School was the all-grades school for the Allen Jay community for decades.
The gym is the result of the work of 1930s Allen Jay Principal Tenor Bennison and Guilford County School Superintendent Thomas Foust, who went to Washington to sell the WPA on the gym.
On arrival in Washington, Bennison and Foust found themselves guided, not to WPA headquarters, but to the White House, where, to their astonishment, they suddenly found themselves in the Oval Office, face to face with President Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt called the WPA, and the project was rapidly green-lighted.
The rock gym was lifted up by WPA workers from the ground of the Allen Jay community – literally. The rocks and timber that make up the walls of the gym were donated by local farms, including the Coltrane Farm and the farm of the family of current High Point Planning and Zoning Commission member Martha Shepherd, who still lives there.
Shepherd, for one, is hopping mad that the school board voted to let the Allen Jay Rock Gym continue to crumble, while spending $1 million on the Summerfield Rock Gym.
"I'd have a hell of a time taking all those rocks back," Shepherd said. "And I like rocks."
The school board's recent dealings with the Allen Jay Rock Gym are a textbook example of what you get when you over-consolidate school systems. Allen Jay School, and then Allen Jay High School, were centers of the community for years. Once the old Guilford County, Greensboro and High Point school systems merged in 1992, the new Guilford County Schools began to care less and less about the relationships between schools and the communities that built them.
The Allen Jay schools fared even worse than some because, before consolidation, the Allen Jay community was a tiny space between Randolph County, High Point and Davidson County.
"Allen Jay was a small little section in there," Shepherd said. "The parents supported it greatly, but it was sort of a stepchild. That's part of it."
In the case of the Allen Jay Rock Gym, Guilford County Schools actually tried to block the gym being placed on the national register, according to Pat Brower, a 1957 graduate of Allen Jay, a member of the alumni association and the author, with fellow '57 graduate Patty Speight, of a book on the school's history.
Brower said that she and Swallow sent letters to Guilford County School Superintendent Mo Green asking for support in getting Allen Jay on the national register – and got no reply. Brower said she sent her letter registered post, so she knows it arrived.
Brower said that, instead of support, what she got from Guilford County Schools was a visit from former Chief Operations Officer Andy LaRowe, who tried to talk her out of going to Raleigh to lobby to get the rock gym on the national register.
Brower said, "He made a good sell, but I said, 'This is important to the community, and I'm going to do it.'"
Guilford County Schools may dislike having its buildings receive historic designations because county, state and national historic designations place limitations on what the school system can do with a building – even if that building long predates consolidation and the community surrounding it has a longtime connection with it.
Also, once a building is on the national register, any construction near it that is funded or permitted by a federal agency must go through what's called a Section 106 review to make sure the construction won't damage the historic building.
The Allen Jay Rock Gym seemed likely to have been saved in October 2010, when the school board voted to transform the former Allen Jay Middle School into a magnet school clone of successful private and charter schools – what Guilford County Schools called an Advantage Model Middle School.
Guilford County voters in May 2008 voted to approve $457 million in school bonds. One of the projects on the school board's list for the bond program was a $12 million overhaul of Allen Jay Middle School – all of it, that is, except for the rock gym.
But with a magnet school scheduled to open in the middle school in August 2013, money available to renovate the rest of the school, and the school board certain to have oodles of the $457 million left over in a once-in-a-lifetime construction market, it seemed inevitable that the Allen Jay Rock Gym would soon be renovated.
The school board dashed those hopes on Oct. 9, when, at the request of school board member Darlene Garrett, it voted to spend the $1 million on the Summerfield Rock Gym, based on the argument that Summerfield Elementary is already in use. The school board also voted not to spend the $1.9 million on the Allen Jay Rock Gym.
The school board did so despite the fact that some school board members, including Nancy Routh, argued that Summerfield's rock gym is in better shape than that at Allen Jay. Summerfield Elementary was on the project list for $18 million in renovations and expansions.
School board Chairman Alan Duncan said, "It's in fact had some money spent on it recently as part of the Summerfield bond effort."
In other words, High Point got shafted again. Even school board member Carlvena Foster, who is from High Point but has been an indifferent advocate for High Point since elected, argued against renovating the Allen Jay Rock Gym.
School board member Ed Price argued that the Allen Jay Rock Gym could be renovated for far less than $1.9 million. The school board always pads costs. Price, who owns a real estate company, said there are many contractors in High Point familiar with renovating historic buildings that would do it for far less than the $200 per square foot that Guilford County Schools claimed was needed.
The vote annoyed Brower.
"Summerfield's is just about completely fixed," she said. "It's wonderful. I don't know how they got permission to do it. It looks a lot better than Allen Jay's."
Shepherd said the Allen Jay Rock Gym is going to deteriorate fast if the school board lets it sit much longer – just as a vacant house deteriorates faster than one that is lived in. She said its current state is the school board's fault for not maintaining it.
Shepherd said, "The amount of money they will have to spend on the Allen Jay Rock Gym will probably be the equivalent of what they would have spent on maintaining it regularly."
The ceremony celebrating the Allen Jay Rock Gym being placed on the national register will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday – ironically, in front of the gym rather than inside it.
"We can't get in there," Brower said. "They would say it's unsafe."