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'Not on my watch,' School Board member says of moving HHS out of city

Henderson County School Board members say county commissioners never talked to them about the idea of replacing Hendersonville High School with a new school campus outside the city limits.

“Honestly our board had never had that conversation that we wanted to move Hendersonville High School and build another school,” said School Board Chair Amy Lynn Holt. “That’s news to me. I’ve never had that conversation with the commissioners about moving the high school. I don’t think that’s the direction we’re going to go in. I think we’re the ones that have to approve that. I’ve not talked to anybody about it.”
Henderson County commissioners confirmed last week that they had had discussions about “contingency plans” in case the Hendersonville City Council rejects development permits needed for the school during a council meeting next week.
“We’re trying to identify whatever options are out there should the City Council turn down the rezoning,” County Manager Steve Wyatt said Thursday. Other options include adding space to one or more of four other high schools or contracting with charter schools to add seats for HHS students.
“The other option was trying to find a place in the city,” he said. That route raises a couple of other hurdles. Land in the city is expensive and it’s hard to find a big enough tract. And any project in the city would still require the rezoning approval of the City Council. “We’ll be right back where we are right here,” Wyatt said. “So the other option is you look outside the zoning jurisdiction of the city.”
School Board members and the HHS Alumni Association were quick to point out that state law gives the School Board the authority to make decisions on school construction and repairs. But because the county pays for construction, commissioners have always had a fair amount of influence on where schools are built.

‘Not on my watch’

“Not on my watch,” School Board member Blair Craven said of the county’s proposal to shutter the historic high school. “That is a School Board issue. That is not a County Commission issue. They’re free to buy and sell property if they want. Their job is to fund school construction and I think they have really forgotten what their job is. It’s not to dictate.”
“It’s clearly a threat,” he said of the county’s announcement through television news and the press that it might look elsewhere for an HHS site. “It’s a preemptive strike if you will to the City Council. The Planning Board said that the plan with a parking lot across the street and the campus shoved on a small parcel is not right for Hendersonville High School.”
Blair, an HHS graduate, was one of two School Board members to vote against the new construction plan favored by the Board of Commissioners.
“I can’t believe that county commissioners are going on every news outlet that we have here and saying we’re going to move the high school and creating so much upheaval where it’s not necessary,” he said. “I think they need to go back to the drawing board and agree on a design that’s best for everybody and go from there.”
School Board member Michael Absher said all he knows about a new school site is what he’s read in news reports.
“If it came down to trying to close Hendersonville High School I would be totally against it,” he said. “Yes, I voted for the new school but that does not mean Hendersonville High School does not matter.”

‘Comes down to a power match’

Absher said he hopes the City Council approves the new construction option but doesn’t endorse commissioners’ way of issuing ultimatums.
“It’s kind of hard to figure out what their mentality it is,” he said. “It’s weird. I think it comes down to a power match. It’s even the same way that some of the City Council reached out to us as School Board members (before a December vote on the question). It goes both ways.
“If it passes, I’ll be glad. If it doesn’t, I’m kind of hesitant what will happen. No matter what we do we have to take care of the current building as it is and I’m just afraid we won’t get any funding to take care of the current school if they turn it down. If it passes, great. If it doesn’t, I’m still terrified what’s going to happen. They’re so many unsafe things with Hendersonville High School.”
School Board member Colby Coren also said the county would be ignoring state law if it made the HHS decision on its own.
“I think both the City Council and county commissioners have got to remember that it’s the School Board that makes the final decision no matter where it goes,” Coren said. “We have never discussed it. This is the first I’ve heard of it as well.”
County Commission Chairman Michael Edney said the talk about a new campus was not intended as a threat.
“I hate that anyone would take what we’re saying as any kind of threat or trying to intimidate or influence,” Edney said. “But it’s important that parents know we’re putting the kids first and we’re going to do something to address the need. We’re going to focus on the kids and what’s best for them. Mr. Stephens made the comment about this being political suicide. I’m doing what’s best for the kids. I make my decision based on what’s the right thing and not on politics.”
“We’re looking at keeping all options open,” Edney said. “We hope they do right thing but if not we need to be ready.”

In a draft copy it prepared for an advertisement, the HHS Alumni Association urges the county to go back to a renovation of the historic Stillwell building instead of an all-new high school.
“Why has the Board of Commissioners refused to consider other options?” they ask. “Why has the BOC not listened to the students, alumni, teachers and taxpayers concerns? There is still an acceptable concept, the Board of Education’s, which is more inclusive and costs less. It is the refined decision that the Board of Education made 15 months ago. The City of Hendersonville would embrace this concept. The concept has even been improved. No temporary classroom trailers are now required as originally presented and the schedule has improved. Three regional general contractors have looked at the scheme. Their budgets are all less expensive than the BOC’s climbing budget. The BOC failed to see or lacks the vision to see how these options can be achieved.”
Holt, the School Board chair, said she looks forward to the day, possibly next week, when the controversy is over.
“I’m looking forward to May 4,” she said. “This has been a very long two years and I’m looking forward to it being over and I hope that in the end we can do what’s best for that community, for the faculty and that bunch of kids and give them what they want and do what’s best for them.”