Evansville District Administrator Jerry Roth made a wager in 2003.
He bet a JC McKenna Middle School teacher—who insisted that the middle school would be around for many more decades—that the district would have a new middle school before the teacher retired.
They agreed the loser would buy the winner a steak dinner.
Sixteen years later, that teacher is still working, and the district is preparing to build a new middle school.
Roth told the story Wednesday to about 50 people gathered for the groundbreaking of a project that will demolish JC McKenna, 307 S. First St., and construct a new middle school. He said he plans to happily accept that steak dinner.
Roth, who was the middle school principal in 2003, said he was always confident the Evansville School District would replace its nearly 100-year-old middle school because the community is invested in education.
Voters in November approved a $34 million capital referendum to build a new middle school and make other upgrades. That vote came less than 20 years after the community passed a referendum for a new high school, which shows how much residents value education, Roth said.
In interviews with The Gazette last September, officials cited inadequate space, aging facilities and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act as reasons to replace the middle school.
Evansville middle school students will have a “21st century, modern learning environment” when the new school opens in September 2020, Roth said.
Demolition on the building’s north end will begin July 1, according to the district’s construction schedule.
Construction of technical education and engineering classrooms at the high school and secure entrances at Levi Leonard Elementary School and Theodore Robinson Intermediate School is already underway.
The new middle school will be built on the same property where JC McKenna is located. Residents wanted the school to remain in a central location within walking distance for students, said Jason Sergeant, community development director for the city.
Toni Coats, a lifelong Evansville resident, attended Wednesday’s groundbreaking. She grew up on the corner of Second and Lincoln streets, right behind the middle school, and she and her husband raised their four children just down the street.
Both Coats and her children attended JC McKenna. She said her favorite memories are of the pep rallies and dances in the gym, which had an echo that made everything sound exciting.
Despite her fond memories, Coats is “totally supportive” of replacing the old middle school with a new one.
She said she is proud her community supports the school district and feels bad for districts that struggle to pass referendums.
Students who attend JC McKenna for the 2019-20 school year will move to the south end of the building so the rest of the structure can be torn down, Roth told The Gazette in February.
Space will be tight during construction, he said.
Classroom trailers will be placed on the property Aug. 1 to offer additional classroom space.
The district has not determined whether the new middle school will keep JC McKenna as its name, Roth said in an email.
The school board is considering surveying the community about the name. If the board chooses to do a survey, it likely will be distributed next year, Roth said.
The middle school was named after John C. McKenna, a longtime superintendent and business manager for the school district. He died a year before the former high school and elementary schools were linked and reopened as the middle school in 1978.
Roth believes McKenna would be glad to see the facility get new life.