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Nearly completed Vilonia Intermediate School destroyed in storm

By Tammy Keith

This article was published May 4, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.

the-13-million-vilonia-intermediate-school-on-mount-olive-road-scheduled-to-be-completed-in-july-was-destroyed-by-the-april-27-tornado-the-district-had-reconfigured-grades-to-put-four-five-and-six-at-the-new-school-superintendent-frank-mitchell-said-furniture-for-the-new-school-had-been-ordered-staff-hired-and-bus-routes-planned-demolition-of-the-school-was-to-begin-soon-mitchell-said

The $13 million Vilonia Intermediate School on Mount Olive Road, scheduled to be completed in July, was destroyed by the April 27 tornado. The district had reconfigured grades to put four, five and six at the new school. Superintendent Frank Mitchell said furniture for the new school had been ordered, staff hired and bus routes planned. Demolition of the school was to begin soon, Mitchell said.

VILONIA — The $13 million Vilonia Intermediate School was going to be the pride of the district, but a tornado changed all that.

The school on Mount Olive Road, east of the Quail Hollow subdivision, was scheduled to be completed in July. It was destroyed when a deadly storm moved through Vilonia a week ago today.

Vilonia School District Superintendent Frank Mitchell said Nabholz Construction employees examined the damage and said nothing could be salvaged — it will have to be torn down and rebuilt from the slab up.

“The school’s pretty well caved in,” he said.

In a 2011 tornado that struck the town, no Vilonia schools were damaged.

Mitchell said that because the school wasn’t finished, Nabholz Construction has insurance on the building, and Vilonia won’t have to pay a deductible.

He saw the school’s damage that night but got a much better look the next morning.

“I just didn’t realize it was as bad as it was — the town and that school,” Mitchell said.

The intermediate school, for grades four, five and six, is needed to relieve overcrowding in the district, Mitchell said. The school was designed for a capacity of 900 students, but Mitchell said the school was going to open in the fall with 725 to 750 students.

Although people have commented that hallways still standing at the school survived the tornado, Mitchell said that is “deceiving.”

One hallway received scratches on the wall, which meant anyone in it could have been hurt, and the other had damage to the doors and wasn’t built with safe-room specifications. That would have entailed windowless steel doors. He said a safe room large enough for the school would have been cost-prohibitive.

“We did well enough to build a building the size of it,” he said.

School district patrons approved a 1-mill property-tax increase in 2012 to fund the construction project. The state kicked in approximately $9 million for the intermediate school, with the district footing the rest.

Two principals had been hired for the new school, Mitchell said, and $365,000 worth of furniture ordered for the building is supposed to arrive in July, Assistant Superintendent Cathy Riggins said.

“That’s another problem; we have to find something to do with that,” Mitchell said. “Since it’s going to be a year [to rebuild], I’m sure [the furniture company is] not going to want to hold it that long.”

Mitchell said other positions will be found for the educators hired for the intermediate school.

Andy Pennington, assistant principal at Vilonia Primary School, was hired to be principal of the intermediate school. Vandy Nash, a reading specialist in the North Little Rock School District, was hired to replace Pennington. Amy Goers, a teacher at Vilonia Middle School, was hired to be the assistant principal to Pennington at the intermediate school.

On top of that, Mitchell said, school officials spent countless hours planning and creating curriculum for an intermediate-school system — a configuration that is new for the district.

Mitchell said the delay in the intermediate school opening — now another year away — has had a chain reaction in the district.

“It basically affected every school in some way” because a grade reconfiguration that would have involved all schools will not take place, Mitchell said.

“I have been working on our transportation system because adding the intermediate school into the mix made it where, timewise, we needed to make some major changes in it, so that’s all down the drain,” he said.

“We were just talking about, we have some ideas,” Riggins said Tuesday, “but right now we’re kind of in shock. Sadly, we’ve lost two kids.”

Brothers Cameron Smith, 9, and Tyler Smith, 7, students at Vilonia Primary School, were killed in the tornado, as well as six adults.

Other buildings in the district were also damaged. At the elementary school “the roof on the cafeteria is peeled back like you’re opening a can of sardines or something, just peeled back,” Mitchell said.

The junior high and high school received “some damage,” he said, primarily to the roofs. Mitchell said the district’s day care, which is an Arkansas Better Chance Preschool, received roof damage, too.

Mitchell will retire in June after 28 years in the district. David Stephens, superintendent of the Nevada R-V Schools in Missouri, has been hired for the position.

Although he’s a Missouri native, Stephens said his wife, Kelly, is from Arkansas, and her parents live in Vilonia.

Stephens said his relatives’ home was not damaged in the tornado.

“My family and I have been praying for Vilonia and Mayflower,” Stephens said in an email. “I’m thankful that there is such a strong group of folks in place at the school to guide students through this and provide the support many of them may need. Our prayers will continue.”

Riggins said Vilonia administrators will talk to the state about dealing with the school days missed as a result of the storm.

“We have a disaster here, and there’s nothing we can do about it,” Riggins said.

The Vilonia administrators’ main concern is, “How can we provide services for our kids?” Riggins said.

“There’s just so much to think about, but I know it’s going to work out,” she said. “We’re going to have to work together the next few days to figure it out. … All those decisions are going to work around what’s best for our kids. That’s what it’s all about, the kids.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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