Sparta Early Childhood Center

AN OPEN ROOM in the middle of the new Sparta Early Childhood Center will be used for in-school gatherings, Sparta Board of Education meetings and other community events. The building is also designed to serve as a community tornado shelter.

They are patiently waiting for exterior doors and playground equipment installation, but educators and preschool students in Sparta hope to be in their new school on Sept. 28.

The grand opening of the Sparta Early Childhood Center, originally slated to open at the end of August, sustained a delay of at least a month.

Sparta Superintendent Rocky Valentine said construction of the $2.1 million building was originally delayed more by heavy spring rains than by issues from COVID-19, but the global pandemic eventually created some supply chain issues with certain items. For the moment, the big delay is caused by a backlog on shipping in exterior doors that are compliant with FEMA’s tornado-safe construction standards.

On Sept. 9, construction workers were outside working on a system of drainage culverts that will control runoff and help prevent flooding on the adjacent softball field, where Sparta High School’s girls fastpitch teams play their home games.

An outdoor concrete path for tricycles has been poured, and Valentine is hopeful that a playground will be built soon.

“We may not get all of the playground equipment in yet, just because of how chaotic it’s been to get school started this year,” Valentine said. “I say ‘chaotic,’ but it’s just been different.”

In the midst of the construction project, preschool students in Sparta started classes in some mobile classroom buildings, which were still on campus from the previous year. Administrators, teachers, parents, students and staff are dealing with the adjustments and challenges that come with going to school in the middle of a worldwide public health event.

Valentine said that parents and kids are handling the adjustments to their routines that come with some added precautions in effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19. The Sparta School District has had one student test positive for the virus as of Sept. 14.

The tornado safe community room sits on the western edge of the Sparta Elementary/Sparta Middle School campus, at the intersection of Highway 125 and Division Street. The building has two classrooms, a multipurpose space that will be used for Sparta Board of Education meetings and other group events, and offices for school administrators and staff.

Before the building is used as a tornado shelter, it will have to undergo additional inspections. The first step will be an occupancy permit from the Sparta Fire Protection District.

“The FEMA occupancy permit will probably take a little bit longer, just because FEMA has its own occupancy piece,” Valentine said. “I don’t know an exact date on that. We’ve been talking, but they won’t even start the next step of that until we have the occupancy permit.”

Community safe rooms are specially designed and engineered structures, built to withstand 250 mile per hour winds, often utilizing 14-inch precast concrete and steel-reinforced doors. Walls and roof sections are built to be capable of withstanding impacts from windborne debris.

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 Ozark. The school district started pursuing the tornado safe room project in 2016. It first applied for the funding in 2017.

Construction is funded largely through a $1.4 million federal grant, and the Sparta R-III School District is responsible for a 25 percent match, or about $350,000. The school district’s costs will climb to about $1.25 million because of some building costs not covered by the federal grant. There are no plans for the Sparta R-3 Board of Education to approach voters for funding in the form of a property tax levy increase at this time. 

Construction Services Group, which does business as the Marion Company, won the bid. The company works out of Neosho. The company recently won the bid to build the Sparta branch of the Christian County Library, establishing some strong ties to Sparta in the process.

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