McCORMICK — Sharon Wall, interim president of the John de la Howe, is out to disprove the notion that it is easier to tear something down than it is to build it up.
The institution is set to open as a school of agriculture in the fall of 2020, but its infrastructure and buildings are crumbling after years of deferred maintenance and the estimated cost of bringing it up to code has gone up since she took over in the spring of 2018.
“We knew the school needed some work. We didn’t know how much until you got here,” she told Ken Durham, the school’s newly hired director of facilities.
Durham presented the board of trustees with a comprehensive improvement plan at their June meeting, a definitive guide to the building and infrastructure work that will need to be done to make the school a magnet for the most promising of the state’s agriculturally minded students.
John de la Howe’s annual budget is roughly $5.5 million, but as a state agency, the amount can be tweaked as legislators see fit. Wall hopes that progress will convince them the school will succeed and that greater state investment in future years will not be squandered.
“That’s why we want to show the legislature we got 10 cottages done, we got this done, this done this done,” Wall said.
In the fiscal year that began July 1, Durham listed 13 priorities, among them the campus water supply, security and ongoing cottage renovations. The cost: $3.8 million.
The water pressure on campus was so poor that it posed a significant fire hazard, according to Wall.
“If one of these cottages had caught fire, I shudder to think,” she said. As for the electrical poles that power the campus, “You could push one over with a toothpick.”
“Safety and code first, then everything else comes after that,” Durham said. “Classrooms for (the students) to sit in, dorms for them to stay in. And whatever money’s left from there, we’ll (prioritize).”
There is only one item to be addressed in year two: the school building itself. If lawmakers give the school its usual $5.5 million that year, the building will cost every dollar the school has, and yet — if all goes as planned — more than 200 kids will be walking through de la Howe’s gates that fall.
Wall is confident work on that project will begin in year one, as early as January. The school has nearly $2 million it can use as needed because it laid off the majority of its staff in August 2018. Another $2 million in unspent money is also being carried forward. Even if the renovation of the school building isn’t complete when students arrive on campus in the fall, Wall hopes a significant portion of it will already have been finished. When de la Howe reopens, classes will likely be in the school’s Wilderness Camp.
The Student-Centered Education Consulting Group is working on the curriculum. A representative from the group told the board in February that the brand-new curriculum, built from scratch, was almost done and that the school could open the next day if the facilities were up to par.
“We want a world-class facility out here,” Durham said. “It’s not going to look like the governor’s school (of) math and science, but we don’t want it to. We got pastures, we got cow patties. ... World-class cow patties.”