LAS CRUCES – A newly constructed Columbia Elementary School is planned for opening in 2025, restoring a neighborhood school that was shuttered for public health reasons in 2018.
The school will be rebuilt close to its prior location on Elks Drive, neighboring the Vista Middle School, and at the beginning of the design phase, the district is rolling out a creative series of interactive meetings to solicit public input on building materials, architectural style and layout of the future campus.
At the first of these sessions Wednesday evening, around 40 members of the public including some children were greeted by LCPS Superintendent Ralph Ramos and architect Ray Vigil in the middle school’s cafeteria.
Vigil and other associates from the firm of Vigil and Associates led a swift-moving presentation of the phases and timeline for the project before involving the participants in a series of surveys measuring reactions to a series of conceptual images depicting different aesthetic ideas for the school’s exterior as well as interior facilities. Using mobile phones, participants selected their preferences, with the results instantly displayed on a wall.
The survey also asked participants to type some of their favorite, and least favorite, features of the original school building. The app then collated their responses into word clouds, with the most frequently entered terms displayed on screen with the most frequent terms enlarged in size.
The largest term by far for everyone’s least favorite feature of the old building was “mold.”
The school was evacuated due to chronic and severe mold infestations over its 15 years of service. The entire student body and faculty relocated to a temporary home at Centennial High School on the other side of town as the school board and then-superintendent Greg Ewing publicly struggled over decisions about rehabilitating the building or tearing it down and building anew. Ultimately, the board chose the latter course.
Demolition of the school building, which opened in 2003, began earlier this year.
After the observing the survey results in real-time, the architects stationed themselves in different areas of the cafeteria to present visual displays of different design styles. In one corner, people were invited to examine and handle samples of different exterior building materials that might be used.
In another corner, Vigil exhibited a topographical map of the plot of land where the school is to be rebuilt and used differently colored tokens to demonstrate potential arrangements of classroom, administrative, food service and other spaces the site will accommodate.
The original building sat in the path of an arroyo on land that suffered frequent pooling of stormwater on the school grounds. The flooding was assumed by some to be the root of the school’s mold problem, but inspection of the building found that flashing material inside the wall had been installed backward by a subcontractor during the original construction.
The new school will hold 752 pre-Kindergarten through fifth-grade students in a 100,000-square-foot construction built on 17.7 acres.
When Vigil concluded the meeting after 7 p.m., people left slowly, lingering over the displayed materials as Ramos mingled, asking people if they found the activity helpful. He commented that the unusual interactive session was a way to earn public trust in the process.
“Our heart is in it for the kids and trying to work together to really make things happen,” Ramos said, adding that similar sessions would be announced to allow more to participate.
Angie and Jerry Gutierrez, who live in the neighborhood, both said they found the meeting encouraging. Their child, now an adult, attended Columbia Elementary as a child. Angie is also a teacher in the Las Cruces Public Schools.
“From what I saw in there, that will be a nice school,” Jerry Gutierrez said. “It’s good that they’re asking for input.”
The couple addressed one aspect that was scarcely addressed in the meeting: the design and landscaping of the school grounds.
“In the front where they have all the trees up front,” Angie Gutierrez said, pointing toward Elks Drive, “it would be neat if there was a walking path. It is our community though we’re not in the school. It would be cool to be able to walk and enjoy that area. Even moms that get there early and are waiting for their child, they could stroll around, you know?”
The design is expected to be completed next summer with construction commencing in the fall of 2023 for completion in winter of 2024.