South Warren Elementary School students, parents, administrators and other faculty members waiting anxiously to learn whether their school will operate next year should have an answer soon. The Warren County Board of Education has scheduled two meetings next week to consider the school’s future.

The board will hold a public information meeting at 6 p.m. on Thursday, June 6, at South Warren, 216 Shocco Springs Rd., Warrenton, in the Afton-Elberon community. The meeting will be held in the multipurpose room.

The meeting will include a discussion about the potential school closing and will provide time for citizens to give input and ask questions.

On Friday, June 7, the board will hold a special meeting at 6 p.m. at Warren County Middle School, 118 Campus Dr., Warrenton, in the multipurpose room. South Warren’s status is the only item on the board agenda for the special meeting.

Questions about the elementary school’s future arose during a discussion about the condition of South Warren’s HVAC system during the board of education’s April meeting. 

At that time, Dr. Frank Polakiewicz, assistant superintendent, said that South Warren was constructed in 1964 with a steam heat system with oil boiler. He added that the underground pipes have become more unreliable and parts have been more difficult to obtain over the years, and maintenance personnel have had to make more frequent repairs.

Polakiewicz said that in 2017, an engineer from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction evaluated the system and recommended a long-range plan for replacing the system that carried an estimated cost of $660,000-$725,000, or replacing the underground pipes at an estimated cost of $200,000.

More recently, the school system consulted with Michael Kilian of Kilian Engineering in Henderson to evaluate the system to update the report. During the April meeting, Kilian told the board that when he saw the HVAC system earlier this year, he found that the underground return pipes had reached the point that they were causing the boiler to suck in mud, which would lead to eventual system failure.

Kilian told the board that work by Warren County Schools’ maintenance department has extended the life of the HVAC system well beyond the normal range, but said that no one can guess when the system could fail. He recommended that the school system should replace the underground pipes this summer at the minimum in order to keep the system going.

Polakiewicz agreed with Kilian, saying that the only way to guarantee an uninterrupted school year for South Warren students and staff would be to replace the underground pipes.

During the April meeting, Superintendent Dr. Ray Spain told the board that the condition of the HVAC system was much more serious than previously believed. He said that, as a result, the school system is faced with a difficult decision: to replace the entire HVAC system at great expense, to replace the pipes now and set a plan to replace the system, or face the last resort option of closing the school. The superintendent said that he did not recommend closing the school at this point, but cautioned that, at some point in the future, closure could be determined to be the best option.

A hearing on the matter held earlier this month at the elementary school drew emotional comments from South Warren teachers and parents, and residents of the Afton-Elberon community. Many described the school as outstanding and agreed that replacing the HVAC system would be worth the expense in order to maintain a cornerstone of the community. 

The hearing also raised the issue that Mariam Boyd and Vaughan elementary schools, and Northside K-8 School, are about the same age as South Warren and could face similar problems in the future. Several years ago, a school consolidations study was conducted at the request of the Warren County Board of Commissions. The study presented four options ranging from renovations at existing buildings to new construction.

Spain told the audience that a decision about South Warren’s fate must also take into consideration projections for a continued decline in enrollment, and that the entire school building is not used at this time.

If the elementary school closed, Warren County Schools would be faced with a number of issues to resolve: studying capacity at other elementary schools and notifying South Warren parents of new school assignments; rezoning elementary school attendance areas and developing new bus lists; and reassigning staff members while preparing for vacancies.

Spain reported at that time that a decision on South Warren’s future would be announced in June, but, by law, could not be made for at least 30 days after the hearing.