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Commissioners, School Board at impasse on HHS future

Architect Chad Roberson answers questions about the HHS project at a joint meeting of the Board of Commissioners and School Board [PHOTO BY JOHN PANNELL] Architect Chad Roberson answers questions about the HHS project at a joint meeting of the Board of Commissioners and School Board [PHOTO BY JOHN PANNELL]

Two hours of talking by Henderson County commissioners and School Board members about Hendersonville High School construction produced contentious exchanges, threats to kill the $52 million project and close the high school, calls for starting over on design and renewed calls for renovating the existing classroom building.
The joint meeting of the two boards failed to produce consensus between the two boards, and the Board of Commissioners itself could only muster a 3-2 vote to table the question for a couple of months and work toward a solution. The joint meeting limped to a close with nothing decided and left nothing in its wake but renewed ill will between the two boards on what has been an emotional and fraught debate for three years.
At issue is a gap in the project that School Board members say they were promised when they voted for the all-new construction option in December 2016 and what commissioners say that project included. The School Board was told early last week that price had gone up by $11 million if the board wants a second gym and a 900-seat auditorium instead of a 400-seat auditorium that meets state standards.
Commissioner Bill Lapsley’s motion to move ahead with the originally approved $52 million plan and add the second gym failed on a 4-1 vote. Then Chairman Michael Edney’s motion to add the auxiliary gym and larger auditorium — at a total cost of $66.8 million — failed on another 4-1 vote.
Charlie Messer’s saved the project for now with a motion to delay decision until July or August. Commissioners Charlie Messer and Bill Lapsley supported the motion; Edney and Hawkins voted no.
“It’ll give you guys a chance, I guess we’re saying start over.” Messer said to the School Board members. “Try to get something that will work for everybody. We’re kicking the can down the road."

School Board members pointed to minutes of meetings, including a joint meeting with the Board of Commissioners in 2016, and sessions with architect Chad Roberson, showing that the $52.3 million pricetag did include an auxiliary gym and larger auditorium. But commissioners said those minutes could be erroneous and didn’t change the fact that the county would have to spend $11 million more for those facilities. The larger auditorium is the main sticking point between the two boards.

Lapsley, Thompson and Hawkins all argued that the original Erle Stillwell-designed auditorium would work fine for the high school, especially with upgrades that the county has already tentatively agreed to make. School Board members said the walk from the new classroom building to the auditorium would be too far and would be unsafe, exposing students to potential harm from outsiders.

“I can’t in good conscience support kids having to walk to the Stillwell building without some kind of cover,” said Lisa Edwards. “I don’t think anybody would support children having to walk from another building to the Stillwell building without some kind of cover.”

“To me it would be very hard to explain the extension of the auditorium with the Stillwell building over there," Hawkins said. "If we say we need to spend $11 million so you don’t have to walk to the auditorium I think is a bit of a hard sell for us.”

School Board member Blair Craven said after the meeting broke up that the two boards could reach a compromise.

"I do think it's constructive," he said. "No matter how it happened we were misled at some point about what would be included in the $52.6 million price. That was in several minutes."

The School Board and commissioners could use the weeks ahead to look at a more compressed campus and possibly revive the idea of renovating the historic classroom building.