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By Margaret Toal
For the Record 

Vacant schools bring problems to cities


Last updated 5/7/2024 at 7:05pm

Jones Elementary

Orange's city planning director was relieved after an announcement from the West Orange-Cove school district. The district will "repurpose" the old North school on Cordrey Avenue and not sell it.

"We don't need any more abandoned schools," said Planning Director Kelvin Knauf. He said the state should pass a law making school districts demolish any schools that are no longer in use.

West Orange Mayor Randy Branch agrees with Knauf on the issue of abandoned schools. He said he asked the school officials not to sell the old North if the May 4 bond election passed.

The $72 million bond election passed with a vote of 333 to 244. Most of the money will be used to build a new early learning center behind West Orange-Stark Elementary School in Pinehurst. Superintendent Dr. Rickie Harris made the Facebook announcement about not selling the old North.

Orange and West Orange have been dealing for years with old schools the WOC district closed and then sold. Eventually, the schools became abandoned, sometimes going through two or three different owners.

The cities have been left with large brick buildings that are decaying and often left overgrown weeds. Windows are broken by vagrants, who sometimes move in. Rats come in, snakes follow. Roofs cave in and trees grow out of the holes.

Mayor Branch is dealing with the old West Orange High School, later middle school, on Western Avenue, and Lorena Oates Elementary on Newton Street north of WOS High.

The school district sold both buildings about 10 years ago to a non-profit school based in Texas. The ownership of both has changed hands through the years.

A 'For Sale' sign is posted on a wall on the Western Avenue school. "He keeps the grass mowed and keeps the windows boarded," the mayor said about the owner.

That wasn't always the case with Oates school, which has a new owner who has boarded up the broken windows and installed fencing around the complex. The grounds are also kept.

Branch said that before the new owner took over, windows had been broken and people had gotten inside. A fire was once started in the gym, though it caused little damage.

The city got an estimate cost of $250,000 to tear down Oates, and more if asbestos is present. Because the school was built in the early 1960s, construction likely contained asbestos.

Knauf, the planning director in Orange understands. He oversees code compliance within the city and has dealt with abandoned schools during his decade in Orange.

Currently, the city has ordered the old Jones Elementary School to be demolished by its current owner. Knauf said the city has gotten an estimate that demolition will cost $225,000, including asbestos removal.

The school was built by the old Orange Independent School District in the early 1950s during the post-war Baby Boom years. Another wing was soon added to the neighborhood school that served kindergarten through sixth grades. It was named for George D. Jones, a school board president.

The school remained opened with varying grades of elementary ages until 1993. A couple of years later, the WO-C district then opened an alternative center at Jones. Then the school was closed.

Windows have been broken out and vines are spreading inside a building. A tree is growing through an outside concrete drinking fountain designed for multiple students.

Knauf has dealt with the problem before. He oversaw the demolition of the old Cove school on DuPont Drive.

That school had also been built in the post-war years, but by the old Cove rural school district, from the days where the historic neighborhood was unincorporated and had its own school district.

The school and rural district was added to the West Orange District in the early 1960s to make the West Orange-Cove Consolidated Independent School District.

Cove school was used as an elementary school until 1985, when the district closed it. About five years later, the district opened its first alternative center for students with behavior problems at Cove. Then it closed after another six years.

The school district sold the Cove complex through bidding in the early 2000s. It housed a church and then a business before becoming abandoned.

The Orange City Council decided to pay to demolish the school. Knauf said the costs were about $225,000.

The city is in the process of developing the site of the old school into the Cove Recreation Center. A playground and picnic area have already been installed and the city has several other projects, including a walking trail, planned.

Mayor Branch said West Orange, which has a population of about 3,460, doesn't have the money to spend on such demolitions.

Orange has more than five times the population, a larger industrial and business tax base, plus a higher tax rate.

Branch said the new owner of Oates has several ideas to develop the buildings and adjacent property and he hopes the projects will be successful.

Oates Elementary

Knauf said the current owner of Jones has brought prospective buyers to visit his office to talk about possibilities for the property, but no one has purchased the old school.

Branch said he worries about decay slowly making its way into the vacant schools in West Orange. "Holes develop in roofs, water gets inside and mold and mildew grow," he said.

Orange has also been dealing for decades with the 110-year-old Wallace High School on John Avenue, which was built for Black students in the days of Jim Crow Laws and segregation. It has been vacant for nearly 60 years and the three-story building has floors that have collapsed with decay. However, the site is an important part of local and state Black history. The owner who purchased the property from WOC in 1981 passed away a few months ago.


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