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If the road to this point had not been so contentious, three other high school districts in Henderson County might well be grumbling about what the $53 million Taj Mahal Hendersonville High School is getting. The county rivals may yet look upon it with envy when the doors open to students in August of 2020.
After the Board of Commissioners ratified its initial April 20 decision of new construction over renovation for a third time last week the prospect that the School Board and HHS alumni could derail the county’s plans looks more remote than ever. It was impossible to leave the rare joint meeting of the School Board and county commissioners with any other takeaway: The county plans to construct the new campus as architect ClarkNexsen originally designed nine months ago.
The first slide presented by ClarkNexsen architect Chad Roberson declared that a new HHS campus would be “BUILDING ON TRADITION.” What came next was a bold and ambitious new high school that featured a large classroom building, auditorium and gym, sited to the north of current high school on the old Boyd auto dealership property. The HHS Alumni Association and at least three School Board members steadfastly oppose the design. But at the joint meeting, commissioners got a yes from all but one member, Amy Lynn Holt, who has proved to be the most vocal advocate of keeping classes in the Stillwell building.
The new brick and stone facility would have numerous design echoes of the historic Stillwell building, Roberson said, and would be the most prominent structure motorists would see as they approach downtown Hendersonville from the north.
“This building will be the first building you see as you drive into Hendersonville,” he said. “It’s important that there be a front door whether it’s used regularly or not.”
A new gym seating 1,000 people backs up to the stadium and contains a fieldhouse for football teams and an upper-floor indoor space where HHS alumni and Bearcat fans could watch games from the north end zone in warm skybox-like comfort.
“We have a duty to our grandchildren and great-grandchildren just like the people that built the Stillwell building,” Commissioner Michael Edney said. “That’s why I support the new construction. New is going to be easier and better for everybody.”
The Stillwell building could still be used for supplemental classrooms, Lapsley added. Other commissioners have also said they expect the School Board to explore the idea of moving its central office to the old 1926 building.
The School Board voted 4-3 last April for a renovation and new construction option and since then members have complained that commissioners usurped the School Board’s authority to manage school construction.
“It is not what we voted for,” Holt said of the new school. “I’m not willing to go forward on this Hendersonville High project.” She told the commissioners that “with due respect, you’ve overstepped your bounds.”
Hawkins responded that if the School Board does not support the plans, the Board of Commissioners should suspend the project and let the School Board work to pass a bond issue at the next countywide election, in the spring of 2018. The only response School Board members made was when Rick Wood said, “Commissioner Hawkins knows that wouldn’t pass.”
Commissioners also rejected the School Board’s assertion that a new Edneyville Elementary School is the higher priority and ought to go ahead of a new HHS.
Commissioner Bill Lapsley said the total construction cost of $110 million of three major school construction projects — the new Innovative High School, Edneyville and HHS — was too much to tackle at once. Commissioners decided instead “to bite off the bigger ones first... It ends up staggering the debt. It would add more debt but it would be offset by less inflation.”
School Board member Colby Coren said, “As we move forward. I stand by my decision a year ago” favoring an all-new HHS. But he added: “If we do support this, I can’t sit here and say I do it happy because Edneyville is still out there.”
School Board members panned the lack of additional parking. The plan basically envisions street parking as now exists.
“We’re basically rearranging the existing parking that’s behind the Stillwell building,” Lapsley said. “But there’s no really net gain of parking spaces. It’s just better configured.” He said the county most likely will need to acquire more land for parking.
“I think we’re playing down the need for parking,” School Board member Rick Wood.
“I am disappointed,” said Mary Louise Corn. “I feel like the Stillwell building is ours” but whatever money the county would devote is likely “not enough to really renovate it, not enough to really make it an integral part of Hendersonville High School. But I cannot vote to stop movement on the plan that has been presented here with all the input that Mr. Wilkins has had and his staff has had. The problem is that we didn’t have this talk earlier.”
The commissioners unanimously approved Edney’s motion expressing the board’s support for continued use of the Stillwell building once the new HHS is finished. They also agreed to move immediately on the heels of the HHS project to address a new or renovated Edneyville Elementary School.
“Seeing the plans, that’s a beautiful high school,” School Board member Rick Wood said. “I really commend the architect in how you included the design of the Stillwell building into the new building. That’s a great touch. I know I would like to be coaching in a facility like that. ... I hear a commitment from you that you want to do the Edneyville project as soon as feasible. That’s good to hear. That relieves some of my concerns there.”
The presentation resulted from meetings over the past several weeks of a working group made up of commissioners Hawkins and Lapsley, School Board members Bazzle and Corn, schools Superintendent Bo Caldwell, Assistant Superintendent John Bryant, and Dave Berry and John Mitchell from the county.
Between meetings, architects met with HHS principal Bobby Wilkins and schoolteachers to go over the concept.
“As they fine-tuned all these recommendations and the concept came together and at the last meeting of the working group we all agreed that it was time to share this and that the best way is in a joint meeting,” Lapsley said.
On the question of whether the Board of Commissioners had usurped the authority to guide school construction, County Attorney Russ Burrell said the financing of the projects negates that law.
A part of state law that says school construction “shall be under the control and direction of the board of education” applies “only if the land is owned by the School Board,” Burrell said. “The problem with that is the only situation in which the land is owned by school is if they have the funds in hand to build the school.”
That never happens in Henderson County nor most counties because only boards of commissioners, and not school boards, can impose property taxes.
“Schools are built by borrowing money,” Burrell said. “If you borrow the money to do so they require collateral for those loans in the absence of a general obligation bond. The way to do that, since school boards do not have ability to raise taxes, and the only way the lenders will agree, is where the real estate is conveyed to the county, who actually borrows the money. At that point the School Board no longer owns the land and the statute is no longer applicable.”