Houlka begins rebuilding school

1STOCK UPDATE Education School BusesHOULKA – “Everything is still on ‘go’” said Dr. Betsy Collums, Superintendent of Chickasaw County Schools. “At this point the first day of school will be Wednesday with teachers ready for students.”

Collums said Chickasaw County Schools will open today, as scheduled even though a fire destroyed the Houlka Attendance Center on Wednesday afternoon.

Firefighters continued to cool down the rubble with water through the weekend and investigators have gathered evidence and interviewed numerous people. The administration of Chickasaw County Schools began the process of reshuffling classrooms to other buildings almost immediately as the district in northern Chickasaw County had seven days to get ready for the first day of school.

“At this point we plan to move students into existing spaces that we have,” Collums said last week. “We do not plan to bring in trailers and will not be holding classes off campus.”

The State Fire Marshal conducted his initial investigation Thursday, interviewed workers renovating the school and made a quick sweep of the still smoldering brick building.

“The fire marshal got here about 8 a.m. and we talked to the people who had been working on the building and those who initially responded to the fire,” said Chickasaw County Chief Deputy and County Fire Investigator James Myers. “This has been ruled an accidental fire caused by human error.”

Myers said the State Fire Marshal is automatically called to investigate any fire involving a school or church.

“The state’s investigation is complete and the state is satisfied that it knows what caused the fire,” said Myers. “The insurance companies, adjusters and the courts will now get involved and determine the rest.”

Firefighters were dispatched at 1:11 p.m. Wednesday and the 14,000-square foot, historic Houlka Attendance Center, built in 1935, was destroyed by 4:30 p.m.

“We lost nine classrooms, our auditorium and of course the content,” said Collums. “The building housed our fifth and sixth grade and our high school, which is seventh through twelfth, also held classes there.”

A computer lab and its equipment was also destroyed.

Collums said the district met with their insurance company, Tabb Insurance of Houston, and adjusters from Liberty Mutual have also begun their paperwork.

“People have asked what they can do to help and right now we are just thanking them for their concern,” said Collums. “This community will do what it needs to do to rebuild this school.”

Collums said she wanted to thank all local firefighters and those departments from surrounding counties that responded to Wednesday’s blaze.

“The Attendance Center was just a few feet away from the high school,” said Collums. “The efforts of firefighters kept the fire from spreading to the high school and we are so thankful for that. We are also thankful no one was hurt in (Wednesday’s) fire.”

An emergency meeting of the Chickasaw County School Board was called Wednesday afternoon and trustees met with contractors working in the building at the time it caught fire.

Trustees also spoke with architect Gary Shafer, who was the project architect for renovation work being done on Houlka Attendance Center. Shafer said the next move is basically two-fold: What does the district do to get ready for the start of school; and contact the district’s insurance carrier and board attorney.
“I was involved when Baldwyn school burned and they lost 22 classrooms,” said Shafer. “I want to point out the district needs to get through the emotional loss and move on to what they can do next. Let’s face it, that building is gone and you are going to have to start thinking about what you are doing to replace that loss.”
Collums said the district has a preliminary emergency plan and she asked the board to invoke it.
“We will move classes around and I think we can find places to put students,” said Collums. “Our staff will find a way to teach, we just need to find space to give them a classroom to teach in.”

Shafer said the district needed to develop a list of inventory in those burned-out classroom rooms and throughout the building.

The district is assessing damage to adjacent buildings that include the high school and ag center. Damage to those building appears to be minimal at this time.

The district is also considering erecting a fence around what is now the shell of the Houlka Attendance Center to keep the public and schoolchildren out of the area.

Trustees met Monday night to consider their next step, look at options, determine what immediate expenditures might be and sign off on any legal paperwork. Several more emergency meetings of the Chickasaw County School Board of Trustees are expected over the next few days.

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