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No accord in sight ahead of HHS discussion

The Henderson County Board of Commissioners is set to take up the future of Hendersonville High School once again on Wednesday with no apparent agreement on the way forward.

More than three years after commissioners committed to a new high school campus, the project has once again stalled amid a disagreement between commissioners and the School Board over the project’s cost and scope. In May, the School Board reacted angrily to the revelation that the $52 million cost for the project did not include a large auditorium and second gym — buildings that School Board members said the agreed-upon option had contained. Last week, the School Board sent a letter to the County Commission Chair Michael Edney asking commissioners to either authorize a project with a 900-seat auditorium and auxiliary gym for $63 million to $65.2 million or let the School Board “start from scratch” with a construction budget of $59 million.
“It is no easy task to begin again, when so much has been invested,” School Board Chair Amy Lynn Holt wrote. “However, I am confident that we have a shared responsibility to serve future generations with the decisions we make today, and I am truly grateful for your continued leadership and stewardship.”
In talks with county architect Chad Roberson, School Board members reviewed three options, Holt said, choosing the one that delivered the auditorium and second gym.

Meanwhile, three mayors said Tuesday the Board of Commissioners should defer to the School Board's guidance on the future of HHS. During a meeting of the Local Government Committee for Cooperative Action, Laurel Park Mayor Carey O'Cain and Flat Rock Mayor Bob Staton said commissioners should take another look at a combination renovation and new construction plan. Hendersonville Mayor Barbara Volk said the City Council would look at a new plan if the School Board adopted one.

Commissioners say they’ll discuss a response to the School Board's letter, dated July 11.
“We’re in receipt of a letter from them asking if we’re interested in going with one of the options or kind of starting over again and looking at a bigger picture of upcoming requirements,” Commissioner Grady Hawkins said Tuesday. “I don’t know what particular avenue we may end up taking from there.”
Hawkins said an effort to work out a compromise had failed so far.
“We tried to work out some kind of arrangement that covered most of the items that we had taken away from out last meeting with the Board of Ed,” he said. “They had an opportunity to look at that and they forwarded the option they wanted to take or just kind of start over.”
That leaves it up the commissioners to “try to figure out a way to go forward,” he said. With the HHS construction plan facing new doubts, Hawkins says the commissioners may want to start a broader discussion of all capital needs for the school system.
“One of the things I am interested in is we’re about to have a revaluation and that will set the stage for a tax rate for the next four years and I would like to get some input on what they think the overall requirements are going to be over the next four years and marry that up with the new tax rate and what kind of debt service we’re going to have.”
County Commissioner Bill Lapsley, Hendersonville City Councilman Jeff Miller and School Board member Blair Craven — the two latter of whom are HHS graduates — tried to reach a compromise that would garner three votes. Nothing has worked so far.
“It’s on the agenda” was all Lapsley would say.
“I’m not sure,” Craven said when asked what he thought commissioners would do. “I’m not on the county commission. I’ll be there Wednesday to see what happens. That’s all I got.”


Other projects on horizon

Both Hawkins and Commissioner Charlie Messer said a broader discussion would likely involve some nearer term projects, such as Bruce Drysdale Elementary School renovation, and medium-term, like three other public high schools that are 25 to 50 years old.
“There’s three other high schools that are getting a lot of age on them,” Hawkins said.
Although Messer said he did not know where Wednesday’s discussion might lead, he sounded perturbed at what he regarded as a School Board demand to fund a $65 million option or start over.
“To be honest I really don’t know” what will happen, he said. “The only person I’ve talked to is (Commissioner) Tommy (Thompson).”
During a joint meeting with the School Board in May to discuss the $12 million cost overrun in the project, commissioners defeated two motions to move ahead with construction at a higher price. Only Messer’s motion passed, to delay the project in favor of more talks.
“I made the motion to just table it and try to get everybody on the same page,” he said. That still hasn’t happened. The School Board letter, if anything, seems to have hardened the position of Messer, and possibly Thompson, to either stick with the $52 million plan — no auditorium, no second gym — or do nothing.
“This is the 18th budget where I’ve been in the process and I’ve never been put in that situation before,” Messer said.
In the course of the HHS discussion, the construction market has gone from hungry contractors bidding fairly low to busy contractors bidding far higher — causing fast-rising cost escalation.
“Who knows what it would cost, if they scrap the plan Chad’s come up with, to get a brand new architect and start from scratch,” Messer said. “The price tag will be who knows what when it opens up. That’s what I’ve got a problem with.”
Messer said the board also needs a full accounting of several other improvements at the high school’s Dietz Field, including artificial turf and new bleachers.
“There’s no dollar figure,” he said. “We need a price on all that stuff, at least to check the number to know what we’re dealing with. We need to come up with a big total. If it’s $74 million put the number out there, and whether we do it tomorrow or over 25 years or whatever it is come up with a plan.”
Messer said that in 18 years on the board, he’s aggressively supported school construction, always insisting on the accurate cost projections.
“I’ve asked for numbers, real numbers, and I’ve always asked for real numbers,” he said. Commissioners have suggested the School Board could take responsibility for financing a new school by pushing for a bond referendum. Although historically Hendersonville city voters supported school board referenda, the last one on the ballot for the new consolidated county schools, in 1997, failed.
“If they take it out for a vote, it won’t pass,” Messer said.