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$11 million cost overrun jeopardizes HHS construction

Henderson County School Board members reacted with dismay on Monday to a suddenly announced $11 million  cost overrun for the new Hendersonville High School, casting the project into uncertainty and reviving the intramural conflict that has marred the project for three years.

During its regular meeting on Tuesday night, the board unanimously passed a motion asking for new talks about the project. At issue is whether the School Board gets the new construction it thought it was voting for or something less.
Henderson County officials scrambled on Friday to set up meetings with the School Board to break the news that the $52.6 million agreed-upon cost won’t include a practice gym or the auditorium the School Board and public were promised. Meeting with three School Board members at a time to avoid creating a quorum, Clark Nexsen architect Chad Roberson and John Mitchell, the county’s business development director, told board members that the plans now include no auxiliary gym and an auditorium of 400 seats instead of 900. Hoping to finalize its 2018-19 budget by Wednesday, the county officials asked School Board members to make a new request for $11 million more. The School Board said no. One by one, board members said they felt misled by the county’s presentation of the plans back when they were under pressure to OK the new construction option favored by commissioners instead of renovating the historic core building and auditorium, the option supported by many students, faculty members and alumni.
“The reason why we are bringing this up is because of the call to the superintendent today to discuss with the architect and a county rep when we were told that the plans we have been seeing with an auxiliary gym in it, which every high school has, that that does not exist,” Chair Amy Lynn Holt said. “We were going to be getting a 900-seat auditorium, now we’re going to be getting a 400-seat auditorium. We’ve never seen any plans where we apparently do not have an auxiliary gym or a 900-seat auditorium. We were told it will cost $11.4 million to add these to the site and basically we need to ask for that money. We were under the impression that was the case all along. We’re going to go back over the plans to see how we could have missed there was not an auxiliary gym.”

Associate superintendent John Bryant narrated slides of architect’s renderings showing a main gym, an auxiliary gym and a modern auditorium that the county said would seat 900 people. Asked by board members whether county officials had ever brought information or drawings showing the changes, Bryant said they had not. In “dozens of meetings since we started the project” school officials saw no plans that showed the changes, Bryant said.

“What this board voted on in December 2016 was what we see here,” said board member Blair Craven. “Two big gyms. What we saw today apparently is going to cost $66 million. … I think it’s important to be good stewards of tax dollars as well. When I wake up Monday morning expecting to spend a certain amount and next thing I know I’m spending 25 percent more by lunch it doesn’t make me happy. For $66 million we haven’t touched the (artificial turf) field, we haven’t touched the track. So what is next? And then we’re asked to come and make this decision in three hours. There has been no time when we have sat down with the county commissioners and not been told what building we were going to build.”
Board members said they would refuse to spend $52.6 million on a school that lacked the key features they thought were included, much less $66 million. Now, they want to meet face-to-face with county commissioners, which last happened just before the School Board voted 4-2 in favor of the option the county wanted.


"The budget was lower than any other (option) and it provided what these students need to be competitive in today’s world,” board member Colby Coren said. “That’s the two things that put me in favor of this project from day one. Tonight I sit here, I can’t support it with that price tag. We need to go back to the drawing board, no more money needs to be spent until we decide what $52 million can do for us. Is it renovate and build new?”
Coren pointed out that minutes of School Board and County Commission meetings and a joint meeting of the two all confirmed specific descriptions of both a practice gym and a 900-seat auditorium. Rick Wood, a longtime West Henderson basketball coach, recalled asking the question about a second gym. They’re needed because high schools field four basketball teams at a time and other sports during the same indoor season, Wood said.
Mary Louise Corn, a retired principal, recalled the pressurized climate when county commissioners signaled that the School Board either endorse the new-construction option or forget about any money for HHS.
“I cannot turn down $53 million for a new school,” she said. “We said, OK, we will support that. It doesn’t matter what we support. I know that a new school is better for kids. I know if we wait 10 years it’ll be more than $66 million. At the same time, I feel totally duped.  And we’ve got to go back to the drawing board. I feel like this is an exercise in futility. This is the third very anxious, very uncomfortable vote.”
Rick Wood also recalled the vote in late 2016 when the School Board relented and recommended new construction. “We took that very seriously,” he said, “Tough decision, we made our recommendation (at first). They chose another option. Then they said they wanted us to have a common front, go to the city, wanted us to get on board. We saw these beautiful pictures, all the modern technology and it was a tough decision but based on what we saw and what we being told the board voted to move forward. So it was really a shame today at the last minute when we were asked to make another tough decision. What do we do? Money has been spent. We’re in a dilemma.”
Board members went back and forth on whether to ask the county to build the new school with the practice gym and larger auditorium or to insist that the county find a way to build it as promised at the price promised — with Coren and Craven taking the fiscally cautious approach. The board voted down Craven’s motion demanding that the county either build what it promised for the price promised or pull the plug. Instead, it voted to ask for the face-to-face sitdown to figure out where to go from here.