- Associated Press - Sunday, February 28, 2016

EL DORADO, Ark. (AP) - For nearly a century, the Southside Elementary School building not only anchored the northeast corner of the four-way intersection at South Jackson and Pecan, but it also loomed as a majestic presence for the surrounding community.

El Dorado News-Times (https://bit.ly/1R4xSTT ) reports that much of the building sat vacant and fell into a state of disrepair in the nearly 13 years since the elementary school was shuttered and Mayor Frank Hash said city crews took advantage of mild weather that has descended upon the area in recent days to knock down the three-story, red-brick building, citing safety issues.

Robert Edmonds, director of public works, said the roof had been leaking for quite awhile and had begun caving in, causing pieces to fall.

Additionally, break-ins and acts of vandalism had become an ongoing problem, so the city, to whom the El Dorado School District had deeded the property, demolished the building as a safety measure, Hash and Edmonds said.

“It’s completely down now. We’re going to haul away the debris as we can get to it. We’ve got some other projects to do. There’s no hurry. Getting it down was the important thing” Hash said.

The Southside building went up in the mid 1920s, becoming the second public elementary school to open in the city - following Retta Brown -; the only elementary school within the El Dorado School District to have a dedicated auditorium, complete with wood and iron theater seats, a stage and a fly system; and among the first buildings in town to be constructed with electrical wiring, according to Sandy McGuire, who served as the last principal of Southside Elementary School when its doors closed at the end of the spring semester in 2003.

Deep grooves had been worn in the stairs, evidencing the scores of students who had climbed them to reach upper floor-classrooms during the nearly eight decades that the Southside was an active part of the El Dorado public school system.

Yocum Elementary School, which was built across town a year after Southside, sports a similar architectural design.

At the time Southside Elementary closed, it was the oldest operating elementary school building in the district with a student enrollment of 189.

The closure came a year after students, teachers, faculty, staff and alumni celebrated the school’s 75th anniversary.

Despite fierce opposition from the Southside family, parents and the community at large, the El Dorado School Board unanimously voted in January 2003 to shutter the school.

Prompting the board’ decision was a proposal to reorganize elementary schools in the district and prohibitive cost estimates - up to $1 million at the time - to repair mortar, the foundation, and seepage and wiring problems and to replace a worn-out roof and heating/cooling, electrical and plumbing systems in the Southside building.

The amount still did not address accessibility issues for people with disabilities, then Superintendent Bob Watson reported then.

Maguire said several ideas for use of the building were bandied about after the elementary school ceased operations and its students, faculty, staff and programs were divided among the remaining elementary schools in the district.

Talks of an art gallery, Boys and Girls Club, senior citizens’ center, a facility for adult education and/or literacy education, police department substation, African American history museum and a community meeting hall never materialized.

The school district eventually turned the keys over to the South West Economic Development Association, a nonprofit organization that offered a number of programs designed to foster economic growth in the community.

Within a decade, SWEDA provided a daycare, culinary arts/catering school, a tobacco cessation program, a philanthropic program that donated refurbished computers, printers, copiers, and scanners to other non-profit agencies in South Arkansas and North Louisiana, among various other services.

SWEDA also managed the Mattocks Park swimming pool for back-to-back summers in 2005 and 2006.

Per the terms of the deal with the school district, the deed to the Southside building would revert back the district should SWEDA cease to operate in the manner that was prescribed in the deal.

SWEDA services steadily declined over the years, and the non-profit agency completely shut down in 2014 amid a federal fraud investigation.

Jim Tucker, superintendent for the El Dorado School District, said the former school building was in “horrible condition” and after discussing the matter with city officials, the school district deeded the property to the city with the intention that it would be razed.

Hash said there are no immediate plans for the property after the debris from the demolition has been removed.

“It’s a really nice location for a park. We’ll keep it mowed. We could turn into a spot for community garden plots,” he said.

Initial plans were to keep the cafeteria, which was added onto the campus in the 1970s, as an asset for the community to use, but Hash said ongoing vandalism squashed the plan.

He said salvageable equipment was removed from the cafeteria and donated to the local Boy Scouts of America, and the cafeteria was torn down as well.

Alderman Willie McGhee, who represents Ward Three where the school property is located, said he was not aware of plans to raze the building until he received a call from a citizen asking if he could take some of the bricks from the building.

“I think we need to have a community meeting so people can have input, so they can be engaged. We need to ask the people in that neighborhood what they would like to see in that spot,” McGhee said.

“We need to see what they would like to do and what would be feasible because we work for these people,” he continued.

Ward Three Alderman Kensel Spivey, who lives near the property, invited residents to share their ideas for its use, and she offered one of her own.

“I would love to see that space utilized for a walking track to promote healthy living. I would also like to see some playground equipment for the kids in the neighborhood who can’t go to Mattocks Park,” Spivey said.

An interesting piece of recent history still stands on the grounds of the former school.

On the southwest corner of the property is a stone memorial marker honoring Nehamon Lyons, IV, a U.S. Navy Specialist who died at the Pentagon in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He was 30.

Lyons was a Pine Bluff native who had relocated to Alabama.

In 2002, Linda Fitts, former director of El Dorado Connections, coordinated a one-year, community-wide tribute to the victims and heroes of 9/11.

“At that time, he was the first Arkansan that we had heard about who had died in 9/11. His name was one of the early ones we heard after 9/11, and with him being the first, we thought we should honor him,” Fitts said last week.

During the tribute, which was held at the Union County Courthouse, a memorial plaque was dedicated to the more than 3,000 people - four from Arkansas - who lost their lives due to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Lyons was also honored with a second paver in the Community Memorial Wall surrounding the courthouse. Fitts said event organizers contacted members of his family, who traveled to El Dorado to attend the ceremony.

In further remembrance of Lyons’ life and service, Fitts said she spoke to McGuire about organizing a project in his honor at Southside school.

“I thought that would be a really nice place for it. Sandy McGuire was the principal at the time, and she was really open to it,” Fitts said.

McGuire noted that the attacks occurred during school hours, and organizers included students in the planning of the project, incorporating academic and life lessons.

“We wanted to make it memorable for the kids without it being scary for them. We built it into a lesson - what it means for people to serve their country and to give their lives. We wanted them to remember the good parts and not just the tragedy of it,” McGuire explained.

She said the group settled on the idea of a butterfly memorial garden, and students researched the types of flowers and plants that would attract butterflies.

The marker for Lyons is one of the last remnants of the building that once stood on the grounds, serving as a reminder that for many in the community, Southside was more than just a school.


Information from: El Dorado News-Times, https://www.eldoradonews.com

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