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Let School Board decide HHS plan, mayors tell county

The Local Government Committee for Cooperative Action meets Tuesday. The Local Government Committee for Cooperative Action meets Tuesday.

Three mayors on Tuesday urged the Henderson County Board of Commissioners to defer to the School Board when it comes to the future of Hendersonville High School while another city council member’s remarks caused the county manager to scoff and walk out.

The scene at the usually harmonious meeting of Local Government Committee for Cooperative Action played out as an ominous forecast of the mood just 18 hours before the Board of Commissioners once again takes up a contentious subject that has bedeviled all sides for three years. After surviving split votes from the School Board and Hendersonville City Council in late 2016 and spring of 2017, the plan for an all-new high school staggered forward to what should have been a groundbreaking by this summer. At one point, the most optimistic construction timeframe envisioned a ribbon-cutting in time for the 2020 school year. Now, even a year later than that may be unrealistic, given the increasingly dim prospects for a compromise that would push the project to the starting line.
The news in May that the $52 million construction price would not cover an auditorium or auxiliary gym revived the squabble and has even called the entire project into question.

Flat Rock Mayor Bob Staton, a graduate of HHS, said out loud what HHS alumni have been chattering about in the runup to Wednesday's meeting.
“I had heard that there’s a possibility the whole plan would be scrapped and the (Boyd car dealership) property sold,” Staton said. “I don’t see any reason at all to do that until there’s alternate plans. Doesn’t make any sense at all, to sell property you intended for a school unless you have other firm plans. It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Laurel Park Mayor Carey O’Cain, who is also an HHS graduate and a strong advocate of renovating the historic school building, brought up the subject of the HHS construction. The town of Laurel Park is a feeder community for HHS, he said, and its homeowners pay county taxes that support the schools.
“The General Statutes of North Carolina are very clear that the Board of Education has the authority and the responsibility to determine what, where, how and when to build or modify the school buildings,” O’Cain said. “The Board of Commissioners has very important and pressing issues on their plate and they cannot or should not spend excessive amounts of time or energy on this matter. I would hope and respectfully request that the Board of Commissioners return this issue regarding education to the proper and empowered authority, which is the Board of Education.”
Hendersonville Mayor Barbara Volk, who was on the prevailing side of a 3-2 vote that granted a zoning permit for the school, said the City Council would be glad to look at a new plan.
“The city approved the plans as they were presented because that was the vote of the School Board,” she said. “If the School Board can come to us with alternate plans we would certainly take that into consideration. … We’d love to have a new proposal someday.”
Mayor Pro Tem Ron Stephens said: "When the city approved what they asked for, it was a 3-2 vote and I was a no vote and I feel very strongly it should be handled as the mayor said, that the School Board would be the one that makes the plan. According to people I called that were familiar with it from a couple other towns, they said that it was not handled properly here according to state law.”
At that point County Manager Steve Wyatt audibly scoffed and walked out.

"It just got too deep in there," he said later in an interview. "You had the mayor of Laurel Park, representing the Laurel Park citizens at an official meeting, and you had Ron Stephens, representing Hendersonville, both playing amateur attorney and accusing the county commissioners. What they don't have is the long history of capital projects and how the Board of Commissioners and Board of Education have worked through these projects. It's not always been pretty but it's been successful. Mr. O'Cain and Ron Stephens have had every opportunity to run for county commissioner. Instead, they have thrown rocks at the county commissioners' back and now right at them."

"I left because it was getting too deep in there," he said again. "Plus, I had to tell the county commissioners how the meeting was going."

As for the assertions by O'Cain and Stephens that the commissioners had improperly usurped the School Board's authority on capital projects, Wyatt said commissioners will defend their actions.

"The county attorney will once again explain the legal basis for what we do and how we do it and if we need to go into the history we can," he said.