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FORT SMITH -- Oct. 28 signified the beginning of some major changes coming to Fort Smith's Southside High School.

Officials marked that day to kick off an extensive set of construction and renovation projects at the school. Their expected completion date is August 2021, according to the Fort Smith School District.

Fort Smith School District Deputy Superintendent Terry Morawski said in an interview Wednesday that the projects encompass more than 150,000 square feet of new and renovated space for Southside High School. This includes a new ninth grade center, a new secure administrative office and entryway at the front of the school, two tornado shelters that will also serve as gym and physical education support for the campus, and a competition gym with about 2,300 seats.

"Another great feature of that gym is that we currently do not have a facility on campus that can house the entire student body for an assembly, and that will be large enough, so that'll be nice," Morawski said.

There is also an expansion project for the kitchen and cafeteria, Morawski said.

"The current cafeteria's undersized for the campus, so students are currently eating in hallways and classrooms and everywhere they can find space, so it'll be nice to have a cafeteria that's the right size for the student body that's on campus," Morawski said.

Other facets of the project, according to Morawski, include an expanded, two-story library media center and improvements to the front drive and general parking flow of the entire campus. Zena Featherston Marshall, Fort Smith School District executive director of communication and community partnerships, said there will also be minor renovation work on the south gym on campus.

Southside High School Principal Lisa Miller said on Thursday she believes the greatest thing these projects will bring is an opportunity for freshmen to participate in a high school community, giving them an opportunity for diversity in classwork and to take advanced work if they so choose.

"I think it's really important for freshmen to feel like they're a part of the high school experience because freshman year, in my opinion, is the foundation of all of that, so I think that opportunity to bring freshmen up to the campus is huge," said Miller, whose high school has about 1,500 students.

Miller said safety and security is paramount, with these projects including many safety and security upgrades as well. She also thinks students are very excited about "student-friendly spaces."

"There's a lot of opportunity for them to have spaces to work and collaborate and to gather, and just the overall feel of the new building is very, very student-forward, so we're very excited about all of that," Miller said.

Morawski said among the safety and security upgrades that are part of the projects are the secure entry, a card-reader system that includes electronic locks and exterior lighting and alarm upgrades. Southside High School will begin incorporating ninth graders into its student body when all the projects are complete.

The budget estimate for the projects is about $45 million, Morawski said. This funding came from a millage increase of 5.558 mills that was approved by Fort Smith and Barling residents in May 2018. It will generate a total of about $120 million for multiple projects in the school district.

The voter-approved school district property tax rate -- which moved from 36.5 mills to 42.058 -- marked the first millage increase in Fort Smith since 1987.

These projects are rooted in Vision 2023, a five-year strategic plan that was approved by the Fort Smith School Board in December 2017 and includes seven areas of focus, Morawski said. These areas, according to the Vision 2023 strategic plan summary available on the Fort Smith School District website, consist of career planning, equity, instruction, learning environment and facilities, staffing, technology and wellness.

Morawski said Tim A. Risley and Associates and Lewis Architects Engineers served as architects for different parts of the projects. The contractors for the projects are Baldwin & Shell Construction Company out of Rogers and the Fort Smith-based Turn Key Construction Management Inc.

Southside High School had a building committee, Morawski said, that provided its own input during the design phases for the projects. This committee included staff, alumni, current students and community members, and it, along with meetings with campus staff, played an important role in the design efforts at the school.

"We're big believers in input and conversation as we work through these projects because we want them to be exactly what our people need and want," Morawski said.

Morawski said a groundbreaking ceremony for construction and renovation projects taking place at Northside High School in Fort Smith is scheduled for Nov. 11.

State Desk on 11/04/2019

Print Headline: $45M in renovation projects underway at Fort Smith school

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