School administrators in Sparta were glad to learn that the State Emergency Management Agency awarded a $1.4 million grant to build a tornado safe room.
They were also spurred into action. As of March 7, superintendent Rocky Valentine and his staff have six months to plan and design a tornado safe community room on the Sparta Elementary/Sparta Middle School campus. The Sparta Board of Education had already approved the 25 percent matching funds—about $350,000—necessary to get the funds from the state and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“We’re very excited about that opportunity for our district. It’s a very large grant, a 75/25 grant. We’ll be the first shelter on this side of the county outside of Chadwick,” Valentine said.
SEMA and FEMA must both sign off on the plans at the end of the six-month period, then construction can begin.
The building in Sparta will be made into an early childhood learning center with some office space. It will also be made capable of serving as a tornado shelter according to standards set by FEMA.
Sparta, a town with a population of 1,900 inside the city limits, has no FEMA-designated storm shelter. The closest public shelters are in Chadwick or Ozark.
“For Sparta, it’s a very big deal. I know during storms we often have people show up on campus and say, ‘Let us in.’ None of our buildings are storm shelters,” Valentine said.
The Sparta R-III School District is working with architects from Sapp Design to plan and draw blueprints for the building. The building’s footprint on the campus has not yet been determined, though school board members and administrators have some potential spots identified.
The grant award doesn’t mean that Sparta residents should haul it to the school the next time the National Weather Service issues a tornado watch. Valentine said it will be two to two and a half years before the project will be constructed, complete and open to the public during storms.
The school district has been pursuing the tornado safe room project since 2016. The building will replace Sparta’s preschool, which is currently housed in a mobile classroom.
“The current early childhood center is a modular structure that is not connected to a building. This project would allow our youngest students to be located in a safe building,” Valentine wrote in a newsletter to school district patrons.