Topeka Grants More Time for Sumner Elementary Restoration Plan
By Hannah Lepow | Online Only | June 24, 2008
It seemed like the latest effort in a 10-year string of failed attempts to redevelop a Civil Rights landmark in Topeka, Kan., had fallen through. But on June 11, the Topeka City Council decided to give Community First, a local nonprofit with hopes of turning the 1935 Sumner Elementary School into a charter school, two more months to show it has the financial backing for the $3.6 million renovation.
Sumner Elementary first garnered attention as one of the schools at the center of the U.S. Supreme Court's historic 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Rev. Oliver Brown, one of the many plaintiffs in the case, sued after Topeka's board of education refused to allow his daughter, Linda, to attend Sumner.
Vacant since 1996, the city-owned school has suffered water damage, neglect, and vandalism. In May, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Sumner Elementary School one of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
Sandra Lassiter, a retired school administrator and former guidance counselor at Sumner, wants to extend Sumner's historic significance in the battle for fair and equal education to the group of students she still sees being discriminated against: the learning impaired.
"If we update the school, it will become a community hub," says Lassiter, secretary of Community First. "We will update the whole area."
Not everyone thinks Community First can raise the money for the project; the group missed its first deadline of May 31. "I sense a lot of hesitation among the city council," says Tim Paris, a city planner for Topeka. "They're not giving Sandra the benefit of the doubt, they're making her really prove she can do this."
In the meantime, Sumner Elementary needs immediate repair. "We would like the city to put some effort into maintaining the building," says Amy Cole, senior program officer in the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Mountains/Plains Office. "There is a person out there somewhere who will be able to take on this project."
Christy Davis, owner of the local Davis Preservation, agrees. "It's a show-me-the-money situation," she says. "Whoever can get the money for this project will get the building. We just want to see the building saved."
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