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SCHOOL BOARD ENDORSES NEW HHS IN 4-2 VOTE

The Henderson County School Board voted 4-2 in favor of building an all-new Hendersonville High School, averting a power struggle with the Board of Commissioners over school construction authority.

Although the School Board's vote ended a nearly year-long conflict between the two elected bodies over HHS and school construction priorities, the action was not the last word on the HHS project. The next step is the Hendersonville Planning Board and City Council, where HHS alumni hope to make one last stand short of a lawsuit against the renovation plan on the grounds of safety and a lack of parking.

It was close to a full house at the Henderson County school administration building as the School Board gets ready to make what's expected to be an up-or-down vote on the Hendersonville High School construction.

Twenty-one people signed up to speak, nearly all advocates for saving the historic core building.

Rick Wood, a potential swing vote, spoke in favor of moving ahead with both Edneyville and HHS.

"Imagine, five years from now, we had a new Edneyville Elementary School that the students and teachers are enjoying," he said. It would be safe and secure with a new library, cafeteria and gym, "a source of pride to the community that lost its high school in 1993." At the same time, HHS students would be enjoying a new building with large classrooms, the latest in technology, a new media center, cafeteria, new gymnasiums and and a new auditorium.

""How can we make it happen?" Wood said. "I hope tonight listening to public comment that we can find a way to move forward toward that vision."

Walt Cottingham, a longtime HHS world geography teacher and father of HHS graduates, said the issue of community was most important.

The faculty heard about all the options in a meeting earlier this year. "In this meeting one unanimous vote was taken in opposition to an all-new school on the Boyd lot," he said. School faculty, alumni and the the School Board favored other options. "Then the commissioners in a show of imperial might threw all the proposals away," he said. He urged the county commissioners to build a school "that celebrates the past and celebrates the future of our school."

Former School Board member Melissa Maurer, an HHS graduate, recalled that the School Board and county commissioners cooperated on buying the Boyd property.

"At no time did we consider abandoning the Stillwell building or building on the furthest corner of the Boyd dealership property," she said. "In my opinion the commissioners have overstepped their authority and if you say Edneyville is first you need to stand by that. Do not be bullied. Do not succumb to veiled or not so veiled threats."

"To place that building on the edge of one of the busiest highways is unthinkable," said Kim Heery. "Are you willing to risk even one student being injured or worse? ... Please do not let your judgment be clouded by fancy buildings and empty threats."

Don Ward, a former county commissioner, said he was shiocked to hear about the conditions from lunchroom workers when he toured Edneyville Elementary School on Monday.

"They said in the summertime it gets 115 degrees," he said. "We don't have to worry about flies because they can't fly. We can't use but one microwave at a time because if we use two it blows a fuse and knocks a breaker off."

Security also poses a threat, he said. "If I was an attorney in Henderson County I would be in the parking lot passing out cards," he said.

Ron Stephens, a City Council member who emphasized that he was not speaking for the council, urged the School Board to "stand up to bullying" and vote no on the new construction plan.

"I have heard many things tonight and I agree with all of them about what this board should do," he said. Edneyville "sounds like a third world country and it needs to be handled first. ... "If you don't vote no you are joining the county commissioners in violating the state law. I read the state law. I think a 6th grader would read that and understand what you are assigned to do and elected to do.

"The other issue is bullying." When bullied "you either stand up to them or it will get worse," he said. "And I think this is a class case of bullying. The Board of Commissioners are bullying. Unless you vote no you will be joining them in making a bad decision and violating state law."

Chris Stepp, an attorney, read a statement from former state Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, a 1964 HHS graduate, that reinforced Orr's previously offered legal opinion that the School Board, not the county commissioners, has the authority to make decisions on school construction.

Boyce "Blondie" Whitmire Jr. used a cane to walk to the lectern and address the School Board. Whitmire and his brothers have more 170 years of service to the school system in teaching, coaching and administration "and five us belong to the Henderson County Education Hall of Fame." A principal for 28 years, Whitmire urged the board to reject the Boyd lot and preserve the historic core.

The board began its deliberation on the issue with a motion by Mary Louise Corn to endorse the new construction.

Blair Craven said he had received assurances that "If we do table this and we do vote no that there's no repercussions. If we were to say let's go ahead with Edneyville.... we can have Edneyville completely done in 26 months. That's not 2021. That's 2019. That is significantly sooner than the commissioners would lead you to believe. Hendersonville High School is its own issue."

When Corn asked who made the assurances, Craven responded: "I met with Mike Edney on Saturday for coffee and he assured me thare's not going to be any type of vendetta, we're not cutting the budget or anything of that nature."

Lisa Edwards, one of three members who had supported new construction, said she still believed that new construction was the right option but objected to commissioners' decision to delay the Edneyville work.

"There are 5- and 6-year-olds walking in holes between buildings," Edwards said. "I will not support that and that's why I will be voting no."

Michael Absher, like Blair a newly elected member, said he had met with all five county commissioners and heard their promises that Edneyville would start immediately after HHS construction.

"I received 117 phone calls since the county sent out that letter, two thirds of those were primarily for Edneyville," he said. "They are looking at how they're going to fund the Edneyville project.  I love the tradition of HHS but after touring some of the high school I would have to support that we do support a new Hendersonville High School."

Wood spoke in favor of the new school.

"Even though the two projects are not linked I believe the county commissioners will be much more agreeable to consider that new school option (for Edneyville) versus renovation if we support their plan on Hendersonville High School," he said, drawing  hoots of derision. "Another factor in my decision was the promise that the historic Stillwell building will be preserved for use to be determined by the School Board," including the idea of a ninth grade academy.

Corn announced her support for the new HHS, becoming the fourth yes vote. Voting yes were Corn, Wood, Absher and Colby Coren. Voting no were Craven and Edwards. The chair, under School Board bylaws, does not vote.

Coren said the future of schools was more important than making a statement about the School Board's authority.

"Based on current estimates of projects, over $100 million will be allocated by Commissioners for the Innovative High School, HHS, and Edneyville projects for our school system," he said. "It’s no secret that school systems across the country struggle to obtain funding for even the basic necessities. We are blessed to live in a county that sees the importance of providing for our children. The bottom line is this: sometimes, in order to do what is best for everyone, we need help. Is voting to move forward with new construction at Hendersonville relinquishing our boards control and authority? You could see it that way. Or, you could see it as I choose to, as an opportunity for our board to say, despite our differences, we are going to move forward and continue to work together for the sake of our students! I am not willing to gamble with the safety and well-being of children to prove our control and authority."