GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) — The idea of Guilford County Schools including the vacant American Hebrew Academy as part of its long-term facilities plan gained life on Wednesday while school officials were celebrating their newly-passed bond referendum.
Superintendent Sharon Contreras suggested during a news conference that the academy, which has been vacant since closing to students in 2019, could be used for foster students, as a long-range plan to work with other agencies and even as the site for multiple schools.
And the person responsible for coordinating the future of the American Hebrew Academy said he is interested in learning more.
“We were talking about it today because it [the academy facility] can, in my opinion, it can be used to also address another need in the community and that is a need for our foster students, students who live in foster care,” Contreras said at the press conference. “And so there might be some space to think about how to work with health and human services for an innovative partnership where we can put multiple schools on that space.”
Voters on Tuesday approved a $1.7 billion bond to repair, rebuild and even relocate school facilities in an effort to provide modern and effective structures. On average, GCS’s buildings are about 55 years old, schools officials have said, and the bond will pay for a list of more than 125 needs with some of that work already underway.
But the American Hebrew Academy, as of earlier this year, had not been discussed as an option.
Lots of facilities
The academy is located on 100 acres at 4334 Hobbs Road and includes 31 buildings of 412,712 square feet (including dormitories), an $18 million athletic center and natatorium and a variety of athletic fields, all constructed on an environmentally advanced system to provide heat and cool, school literature said. There’s even a 22-acre lake.
More than a year ago, the American Hebrew Association, which manages the facility, had decided to stop marketing the campus as the school that it was built to be and to consider new opportunities for its future, including a possible sale.
At the time, former GCS spokesperson Janson Silvers said that school leaders hadn’t publicly discussed the facility. A consultant hired by the school board to put together the long-range facilities plan said he had not been party to discussions about the facility.
Greensboro Nancy Vaughan and City Council member Nancy Hoffman said the city had no plans for the facility.
William Scarborough, a certified public accountant who has been handling the business of the property for the American Hebrew Academy’s board, told FOX8 that a person he described as a top school official – he couldn’t immediately identify who it was, but did know it was not Contreras – had contacted him a couple of months ago. He was told that if the bond were to pass, there would be a lot of renovations that would affect the availability of school facilities.
“They asked if we could use our facility for recreational and sports space – for long-term,” Scarborough said Wednesday.
Parents of students at Grimsley High School have been recently pushing school officials about a plan that would turn Grimsley’s athletic fields into the new facility for Kiser Middle School. The idea has caused a significant uproar.
“We weren’t ready to commit to that. … I said we couldn’t commit to anything long-term,” Scarborough said. “And then I said, ‘Why don’t you just buy the place?’”
Scarborough said he had heard nothing since that conversation, but he expressed interest in hearing more about what Contreras had suggested.
“Nothing has happened beyond an off-the-cuff comment,” he said.
Guilford County Board of Commissioners Chair Skip Alston had been part of discussions with the U.S. Department of Health and Social Services about leasing the facility as the home for displaced immigrant children awaiting reconnection with their families. Officials have said that 700 to 800 12-to-18-year-olds could be housed there, the News & Record reported. But that idea has languished.
Then, in a few words of celebration on Wednesday, Contreras changed the entire conversation.
Contreras said she knew “that space is extraordinarily expensive” and she said it was “a beautiful space.” Vaughan once placed the cost of the facility as likely between $35 million and $45 million. Contreras said she would reach out to county officials — Alston was sitting on her right — about “how do we reach out to federal health and human services about potential seed money for an initiative like that.”
She said school officials “are constantly looking for housing, families, for children who are in foster care, and there is a beautiful site right there where they can go to school and live at the same time.”
Scarborough said earlier this year that the academy had been operating with a very small staff, limited to maintaining the campus. He said at the time the facility was not being marketed for sale and hadn’t been since 2019. And at the time he said he had not heard from school officials.
That obviously has changed.
“I’d be happy to talk to them,” he said.