- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 2, 2006

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A stately and beloved old building can receive perhaps no greater recognition than being listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

But school officials here are fuming over a listing of 10 current and former school buildings around town, a move by preservationists partly in response to a billion-dollar school construction boom in Wyoming.

The boom, prompted by a 2001 state Supreme Court order for equal school facilities, has meant that as new schools go up, old ones are coming down in several Wyoming towns.

Preservationists are starting to speak out. “I wish that we had started a few years ago, because we’ve lost a few already,” said Mary Humstone, an American studies instructor and researcher at the University of Wyoming.

The Cheyenne school board’s view is that if they want to tear down schools, that should be their right — especially if razing makes financial sense.

“I know people say, ‘We want to keep our neighborhood schools and we don’t want to tear down the old buildings or close them,’ ” said Jan Stalcup, chairwoman of the board. “But the other piece of that is, what is going to serve the district?”

It’s a familiar debate in states where courts have ordered school construction. Ohio preservationists are irked by a rule requiring new construction if renovating a school would cost more than two-thirds as much. A bill introduced in the Colorado legislature would put a preservation officer on a state board overseeing school construction.

“Some places have changed local law to make the school board more open to alternatives. Some places have said, ‘Well, the school board knows best, and we’re just going to go with what they say.’ And in some places it’s in between,” said Kate Stevenson, with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“Mostly what preservationists are looking for is real serious consideration of the value of a historic building prior to action.”

The National Trust praises states like Maryland and Vermont, which emphasize renovating schools over building new ones whenever possible, while Florida, New York and North Carolina involve state historic preservation officials in school construction projects.

Wyoming has no such laws.

Rather, the Wyoming School Facilities Commission has been busy complying with a state Supreme Court order for all school buildings to be equal regardless of local wealth. School districts list their construction needs, and the commission — often after wrangling with districts over costs — submits the bill to the Legislature.

The lofty costs haven’t slowed the effort any, considering a gas drilling boom that has gifted Wyoming with billion-dollar budget surpluses.

But Miss Humstone says it’s time for the idea of preserving old schools — either as schools or, say, apartments or offices — to stop taking a back seat. “There just seems to be this rush to build schools as fast as possible,” she said. “There is no consideration of the historic significance of them. And really the community significance, too.”

She mourns a 1920s-era high school in Sheridan that was torn down last year to make way for a middle school on the same site. Old schools also have been razed in Burns, Saratoga and Hudson.

The Cheyenne school buildings range from 55 to 95 years old and represent a variety of architectural styles, including Collegiate Gothic and Art Deco. Many long served as neighborhood gathering places, according to the city’s application to have the schools listed.

Miss Humstone and a group of her students have begun looking into which other schools across the state might qualify for National Register listing. In the meantime, they would like Wyoming to hire a preservation architect who would ensure that certain old schools are not demolished and who could advise districts on renovation costs.

Jim “Bubba” Shivler, director of the school facilities commission, has no problem with that. He is, after all, an architect who has helped renovate historic buildings.

“We get kind of the moniker now that we go around the state and we burn and tear down. And you know, we’ve only taken down a few schools, and the ones we’ve taken down have been at the request of the district,” he said.

“If the town or community can use these as community centers or senior centers or whatever and they have the wherewithal to keep it up, we certainly encourage that. For one thing, it costs the state money to tear them down.”

It’s the prospect of losing money by not tearing them down that worries Cheyenne school officials. They say that if they ever decided to put a former high school, a free-standing gymnasium and three elementary schools on the market, their National Register listings could deter buyers.

Because of the listings, the district would need approval from the Cheyenne Historic Preservation Board to tear down the buildings. School officials worry that if they didn’t see eye to eye with the board, the buildings could become vacant albatrosses that would drain funds with ongoing maintenance and utility bills.

The board and district have a written agreement saying that if a school building can’t be sold, the city may delay a demolition permit up to 30 days.

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