Since its construction in the early 1950s, the Hunt School campus on North 20th Street has played a significant role in the social and educational history of Columbus.
Originally, Hunt was the only black high school in Lowndes County during “Equalization” — the last stand for racial segregation in Southern schools during the final decades of the so-called “separate but equal” era. It became part of the city’s integration story in 1971, when the campus began educating black and white students alike. Through the RE Hunt Museum which was housed there from 2011, the campus played a vital role in sharing the history of the school and the community with all who wished to learn it.
But for nearly three years, Hunt sat damaged and empty — becoming what Columbus Municipal School District Superintendent Cherie Labat called “part of something that happened in February 2019,” when a EF-3 tornado severely damaged Hunt and devastated homes and businesses. in surrounding Northside neighborhoods.
This most destitute chapter in Hunt’s history is about to come to an end, Labat said.
CMSD and Wisconsin-based Middlesex Insurance Company have reached an agreement on how much the insurance company will provide to repair Hunt. Federal emergency management and Mississippi emergency management agencies are scheduled to meet with district officials over the next two weeks to determine their respective shares of the work, which means construction could begin as early as spring.
“We are ready to step forward and give our community a sense of pride at a facility that is a part of many people’s lives,” Labat told The Dispatch. “I think it’s going to be dynamic. (Three) years is a long time, but we are also mitigating a pandemic in the middle of that. This slowed down the process and we tried to get as much as we could for the building (insurance).
CMSD originally pressed Middlesex for $14 million in damages to repair the four buildings that make up Hunt’s campus. Middlesex sued the school district in federal court in March 2020, saying CMSD’s policy only entitled it to $4.8 million and did not include the building that housed the museum.
The insurance company has already covered nearly $3 million in repairs, including post-storm demolition and cleanup, asbestos removal from floors and new roofs on facilities.
Labat did not disclose the settlement amount to The Dispatch, but said she believed it was “sufficient given the issues and the politics”. Federal court documents for the case also do not disclose the amount.
Once FEMA and MEMA determine what amount not covered by insurance is eligible for disaster relief reimbursement, CMSD will be responsible for paying 12.5% of that portion.
“We still have things to negotiate with FEMA and MEMA (in terms of what qualifies for disaster relief),” said Taylor Guild III with Eley Guild Hardy Architects, who designed the new Hunt campus. . “Hopefully it won’t take long and we can go to the (school) council next month to bring those numbers back.”
Labat had originally hoped to open the revitalized Hunt campus in August, which she admits is “unlikely”. Guild told The Dispatch that if work started in the spring, it would likely take a year.
The new Hunt Campus
Guild said Hunt’s projected $16 million campus design will embody all the necessary principles of a historic restoration — Hunt was declared a historic landmark by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in April 2019, two months after the tornado – while also sporting the 21st century upgrades and goal.
The two-story building facing North 20th Street will become the sixth-grade school, he said, with a renovated gymnasium and cafeteria. The former home economics building will become the sixth grade music/art space. The grounds will include a secure yard for these students, as well as a bus drop-off and pick-up location.
Sixth graders now attend middle school along with seventh and eighth graders. They represent about 225 of the total 900 students on this campus.
“We are reducing enrollment in middle school, and for that age, we want a smooth transition for their social development as students leave primary school,” Labat said. “We will have programs that give early exposure to workforce and college pathways, combining learning and a technology focus for students at a pivotal age.”
Other Hunt buildings will house a workforce development space and an adult education space, and the RE Hunt Museum will return to the same location it occupied before the tornado.
All facilities will have new HVAC, mechanical and electrical systems, Guild said, along with adequate fire protection, new flooring, paint and hardware.
CMSD’s board of directors has announced its intention to award the construction contract to Tupelo-based Century Construction and will be able to execute that contract once all financing matters are finalized, Guild said. Even with material costs skyrocketing nationwide during the pandemic, he said the contractor’s estimates have not changed, meaning there should be no need to restart the project.
“The contractor has been able to hold its price so far,” Guild said.
Labat said the district has signed memorandums of understanding between East Mississippi Community College and Mississippi University for Women to partner with Hunt’s programming once it is complete. She said she will present these memoranda of understanding to the school board for approval in February.
Hunt will have four adult classrooms, a lobby, two test labs, a computer and four technical training bays, said CMSD public information officer Mary Pollitz. at The Dispatch. EMCC will partner with this space for adult education services, career coaching and assistance in providing internship and job placement opportunities, she said.
MUW will partner with CMSD in Hunt for a dual enrollment program for aspiring educators to create a “student-teacher pipeline,” Pollitz said.
Other spaces will be made available to the public for rental for community events.
Labat said she views the Hunt campus revitalization plan as “community unifying development.” She also called the project a “moral imperative,” especially given the community history associated with the campus.
“(Hunt) has a lot of historical factors for everyone in the community – things that are bittersweet in our past – but it creates a positive future for everyone in (Columbus) to have this resource in a place that will continue. to make it a vibrant community.
Prior to the tornado, CMSD housed its alternative school and after-school programs in Hunt. The alternative school moved to Union Academy after the storm, while after-school programs are housed on individual campuses.
Zack Plair is the editor of The Dispatch.