Real Estate developer Mark Wright looks at the remains of a large fire in the auditorium of the old Miller High School in Macon. Wright aims to turn the derelict but beautiful building into a new housing development. Things like fires set by trespassers and the ingress of the elements tell him he doesn’t have much time. Grant Blankenship/Georgia Public Broadcasting

Keeping Shuttered Schools Safe and Secure

Michael Caputo/Georgia Public Broadcasting

Mark Wright sounds like a guy in love.

“You see this grand old lady up on the hill. its hard to resist her,” Wright said, standing in front of the historic but vacant A.L. Miller school complex just west of Mercer University. “I mean, look at it.”

Wright is an architect and developer. So it’s natural that the schools are his object of affection. The highlight of the complex is the high school with it’s brick veneer and Jacobethan Revival architecture.

Wright lives in Louisville, Kentucky and plans to redevelop the Miller schools into affordable housing. The complex has been unused for years and the boarded up windows don’t nearly tell the story of disrepair and decay quite like a tour of the inside does.

The facade of the old Miller High building in Macon. Grant Blankenship/Georgia Public Broadcasting

“All the stuff you see on the floor is the ceiling tiles just ground in. Where people have ripped out copper and wire and pipe to get to the metal and copper,” Wright said inside the main school.

Wright ignored the scattered trash; the broken desks and computer terminals. But when he comes to the old auditorium, he pauses by a pile of large blackened wood planks on the floor.

“Look, here’s somebody had a little bonfire in the building,” he said with concern. “They’re lucky they haven’t killed themselves and burned the building down.”

Trespassers built that fire recently. You can smell it. And this isn’t the first fire Wright’s found. Then Wright points to a hole in the ceiling by the auditorium stage. Rain has made it’s way into the building.

“You are starting to see rotted wood at the top, you’re starting to see deteriorated plaster. You’re starting to see it go down to the floor,” he said.

These are real pressures on the Grand Old Lady. Soon other schools will be on a similar clock. Bibb County schools will consolidate school buildings to save money. It’s a school shuttering not seen in the Macon area before.

Abandoned computers in a classroom, left. A graduation photo left in the high school auditorium, right. Grant Blankenship/Georgia Public Broadcasting

“I think we’re taking six schools off line so that’s a large percentage,” said Jason Daniel, executive director of capital programs for the district.

He oversees schools that are closed. The drill? Monthly sight inspections of the building and grounds for signs or forced entry or water damage. Lawn crews will mow and pull weeds. The cost? “It’s relatively small but it would equal several hundred dollars a month,” he said.

That’s not unusual for school districts across the country that shut down buildings. Emily Dowdell authored a study on shuttered schools for the Pew Charitable Trusts. Dowdell said he studies show that maintenance of closed schools “really takes a back seat to keeping the existing schools up and running often on a tight budget, so schools stay empty for quite awhile.”

All the more reason to get aggressive on selling a building. But many schools don’t appeal to developers. The small 300-student neighborhood schools that were the fashion 40–50 years ago make reuse difficult.

Inside A.L. Miller Schools. Grant Blankenship/Georgia Public Broadcasting

“Some of the little school buildings we see, you might get 12 units in and its just not economically feasible to do that,” Wright said.

But A.L Miller is vast. Wright will put 60 plus housing units there and, maybe a new county senior citizen center. Talks are underway for the latter. But Wright wants to get to work on redevelopment… soon.

“Were here just in time,” he said. “I’m not sure it would make another couple of years before we’d get to the point consider maybe demolition,”

Until then the clock is ticking for A. L. Miller schools, just as it will for schools being closed over the next couple of years in Bibb County.

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