November 22, 2016
By JAMES EVANS
Rutherford County Schools
SMYRNA — Trey Lee is a fifth generation Smyrna resident, and these days for his job with Rutherford County Schools, he spends much of his time literally driving down memory lane.
Lee grew up a short throw from the under-construction Rocky Fork Middle School, which the county will open in August.
“Basically from here to the interstate, it was all Lee’s — cousins, brothers, aunts. All up and down Lee Road — that’s where the name came from was our family members. There’s still a half a dozen who live up and down Lee Road,” he said while giving a tour of the area.
Most parents have no idea who Trey Lee is, but as a project manager in the school district’s Engineering and Construction Department, his daily work has impacted the education of thousands of students in Rutherford County during the past 10 years.
During that time, Lee estimates he has worked on 10 new schools and six additions to existing facilities.
When a new school or addition is being built, Lee’s role as a project manager is to serve as the liaison between the school district’s engineering department, contractors, architects, government officials, utility companies and others involved in the construction process. He starts most days by visiting school construction sites — monitoring progress, inspecting work that’s been completed, meeting with builders and resolving issues as they arise.
He is armed with his trusty Hartmann luggage index card wallet — that’s what he uses to take notes as he walks through construction sites — and his personal hardhat that is covered with various stickers, scratches and other memories from a long career.
“It’s over 20 years old,” Lee said about his hardhat. “It’s been everywhere I’ve been. It’s been through four or five liners.”
Currently, Lee is managing two major building projects, the aforementioned Rocky Fork Middle School and the new John Coleman Elementary School, both in Smyrna. While Rocky Fork is scheduled to open in August, John Coleman will be turned over to the school district on Dec. 1 and officially will open when students and teachers return from winter break.
Lee is aptly suited for his role with the school district, having construction in his blood.
“My granddad was in construction, my dad was in construction and that’s all I’ve ever known,” Lee explained.
In high school, Lee completed a carpenters apprenticeship in Nashville, which he says was rare because he had not yet graduated. His family’s background made it easy for him to decide what to do next.
“My intention when I got out of high school was to go to Nashville Tech, to get a two-year associates civil engineering degree and drive nails for the rest of my life and move up through the chain that way,” Lee said, explaining his ultimate goal was to become a commercial superintendent.
So the “short version” — as Lee often says — is that he worked with his dad at a construction company during the day and went to school at night. But the company decided it wanted to start a scholarship program to allow someone to pursue a four-year degree in the industry.
“The president of the company said ‘Let’s start with someone we know,’” said Lee, who became the first recipient.
That opportunity allowed Lee to attend Auburn University — he selected that university because it was the closest to home — where he earned a degree in building science, which combined several disciplines including engineering, structural and architecture.
After college, Lee spent a career that took him to seven states. And while many of those in the construction industry typically specialize in a certain area, Lee’s projects ranged from hospitals and churches to jails and timeshare condos.
“For some reason I ended up more rounded, for lack of a better term,” Lee said.
That experience has served him well and has been an asset to both the school district and contractors because Lee speaks both languages.
“I’m an owner who understands the contractor side. On the contractor side, time is money,” Lee said. … “By understanding their frustrations and what they need, I can benefit them by getting answers quicker and keeping them moving.”
When Lee was on the construction side, he explained, he often had to write change orders if an element of the project was changed and would cost more money. In his role with the school district, he understands that change orders do happen from time to time, but he also knows how to keep the contractors accountable.
“The difference with me is I know it costs $50 and I’m not going to pay $200,” Lee explained.
When John Colemon opens in a couple of months, the 132,000 square-foot facility will be the first elementary school in Rutherford County to feature a two-story design. Part of Lee’s responsibilities include working with the faculty and staff with the school and the district to incorporate improvements that help students.
At John Coleman, for example, the school will include five computer labs instead of two like other schools because of the increased demand for online learning and assessments. In addition, the School Resource Officer’s office has been relocated to be adjacent to the school’s front foyer so the officer can see all visitors as they enter the school.
Rocky Fork Middle School will include 160,000 square foot when it opens. With an increased focus on STEM programs in middle grades — STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — the new middle school will feature classrooms designed for those classes.
Lee is quick to point out that he approaches all school building projects with the same level of professionalism.
“Yes I went to Smyrna and I’m a Bulldog at heart, but I’m not going to treat Riverdale or Oakland any different,” he said. “If I can do it for one, I’m going to do for the other.”
Still, he admits he is proud to have the opportunity to build a school so close to where he was raised.
“To me there’s always a certain amount of pride when you build something in your community that’s going to have a lasting benefit to your community and a school to me is a lasting benefit to everybody who comes behind you.”
He remembers as a child when his family would point out buildings that his father and grandfather built. Likewise, he hopes his children will one day point out the schools he’s built and say, “You’re granddad built that school.” …
“Because we all were in construction, you see a building, in some ways, as a legacy.”
PHOTO / JAMES EVANS
Rutherford County Schools project manager Trey Lee inspects the construction site at Rocky Fork Middle School, which will open in August.