AMBOY - Amboy will soon have a new junior high school. Completion of the facility, as well as a new gym and offices for the high school, is expected for the start of the 2021-22 school year and Superintendent Joshua Nichols is excited to see the project finally nearing the end.
“We’ve had some unexpected disruptions along the way - everything from a delay in deliveries due to the recent Suez Canal blockage to a worldwide pandemic,” Nichols said last week. “Overall, we’ve been pretty lucky and we should be done for the start of the school year in August. It’s looking good as of right now.”
Nichols has good reason to be excited about completion of the building project. It will come after well over a decade of discussions between board members and the community about the cost of trying to upgrade the century old Amboy Junior High building versus building a new facility. When it became clear in 2017 that a decision had to be made, the general consensus was that a new school would be in the best interest of the community, now and into the future. But either way, there was going to be a large price tag.
In 2018, the board of education approved placing a referendum on the March primary asking for a $15.8 million General Obligation bond to construct a replacement junior high school building adjacent to Amboy High School. Although that referendum was defeated by 53 votes (769-No to 716-Yes), the board was willing to try again. They had the support of many parents and community members who had worked hard for several months to inform the public about the building project. More importantly, the board understood that a new building would not only be more cost-effective in the long run, it would be a source of pride and accomplishment for the community. And it was urgent.
That summer, after former Superintendent Jeff Thake resigned, Nichols was hired to fill that position. Nichols had spent three years as Amboy High School Principal and before that, was a teacher at Amboy Junior High, so he was very familiar with the problems at the old school. The board continued discussions over the next few months and decided to try the referendum again on the November 2018 ballot. On the second try it was approved by voters.
A groundbreaking ceremony for the new junior high was held in July 2019 and spirits were high with the project finally about to get started. But soon after, Nichols and the board faced another major obstacle. The second bid package came in $2 million over budget and the project had to be paused. Most of the items had received no bids and others only received one bid. Rising prices and the one-year delay in getting started was costly.
A rebid was issued and after that bid opening in September, Nichols reported that the new bids were still higher than hoped for but the project would be able to move forward if some changes were made in the plans. By substituting less expensive floor and ceiling tile and some other items, at least the building would be able to remain the same size as originally planned. At the time, Nichols said it was not necessarily what they wanted to do but they had to keep the cost down and it would still be much better than the current junior high.
Everyone was relieved when work resumed that fall but several months later in March 2020, yet another obstacle was faced when the pandemic hit. Although schools and many businesses were closed for several months, construction was allowed to continue and the project remained close to schedule. By November, work in some areas of the building had progressed enough to allow for interior work to proceed during the cold months.
The finished product
When completed, the new junior high will have its own separate secure entrance, classrooms, offices, kitchen and cafeteria. Junior high students will use the old high school gym, while high school students will have a brand-new gym.
Due to budgetary constraints both schools will share the current high school library. Originally, the board hoped that a separate junior high library could be included in the budget but when that had to be cut, Nichols said the task was to find a way to best mix the high school and junior high libraries. Some brand-new shelving will be added and some shelves will also be brought over from the old junior high. “Combining the two libraries is not the best solution but it’s what we can do right now in order to stay within budget,” Nichols explained. “And a new junior high library could be added in the future if funding allowed.”
In addition to a new gym, the high school will have a new weight room, lobby and high school offices. The district offices will stay the same. The main entrance of the high school will now face the street rather than the parking lot and the large turnaround will be replaced by a smaller version in the same location as before.
As for choices on colors and furnishings, Nichols said they got input from various sources including the Building Committee, which helped decide on some of the colors and from teachers, who were consulted when it came to classroom furniture. “They’re the ones who use it and have to look at it every day,” he said. “We tried to keep school colors in mind when possible and also to match with what we have now.”
On the outside of the junior high, a khaki color was chosen in order to tie the two buildings together. “It went well with the current colors on the high school and then we picked another color similar to the brick on the old building,” Nichols said.
Although some initial landscaping will be done to spruce up the exterior, there was little left in the budget to do extensive landscaping right away. But Nichols noted that additional landscaping can be added later as time and funding allow. With the project still on budget, Nichols hopes one of the things they can afford is having a new clipper ship in place near the entrance of the high school.
One of the most important features of the new building, however, will be its safety. Nichols explained that this will be a very well built, heavy-duty junior high school. “It will be a very safe structure that will be rated as a storm shelter, which is important considering the number of storms we have in the area,” he pointed out. “We will have a nice, quality school. That’s very exciting and I’m very grateful for everyone who helped with all of the decisions along the way.”
Looking back over his past two years as superintendent, Nichols said he learned way more about constructing buildings than he ever thought he would and he is especially grateful to have had a good construction manager and maintenance people throughout the process. “They have been great and I’m very fortunate to have them,” he said. “We’re also pleased that we had some local people working on the construction. They really take pride in their work and that’s been reassuring to see.”
Currently, everything needed to finish the building has been ordered and Nichols is hopeful it will all show up on time. If there are no major obstacles between now and the start of school in August, junior high students and teachers will start the school year in a new building.
As for the old junior high, the board still plans to demolish the structure but Nichols said it will be a process. First, various items that are left in the building and no longer needed will be sold possibly at auction or some other type of sale. Then, the district will be required by law to do an asbestos abatement before actual demolition can begin.
Once the new school is done, Nichols hopes to have an open house so the community can come and see it for themselves. With COVID restrictions still currently in place, however, the district will have to wait until it is safe to hold such a large indoor event.
For Amboy students, teachers and parents, the positive impact of having a new school facility is sure to be a welcome relief and a source of pride. “The old junior high had so many problems,” Nichols said. “Every year we had to shift kids out of classrooms due to heating issues and various other breakdowns and it was very disruptive for everyone. Now, we will have a very well constructed building that will last for a long time and I’m very excited and happy that it will finally be done soon.”