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COUNTY KILLS HHS PLAN

The Henderson County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday voted to pull the plug on a new Hendersonville High School, ending, at least for now, a three-year political fight that has pitted city against county and the elected commissioners against the School Board.

After board Chair Michael Edney asked the board to allow him to continue negotiations with School Board Chair Amy Lynn Holt, the four other commissioners expressed their views that the county should end any further work on a new HHS and cut off any further spending on the project. In a 4-1 vote, commissioners adopted a motion by Commissioner Grady Hawkins to kill the HHS project and begin a process to sell the Boyd dealership property.

The board's vote brought a three-year contentious fight to a stunning and abrupt end. The county has spent some $4.8 million on the project so far, including planning, architect’s fees, land acquisition, testing and demolition.

Edney, a 1978 graduate of Hendersonville High School, opened the discussion with a plea to allow a few more weeks of talks to try to resolve the differences and come up with a compromise that everyone would accept.

“I think nobody argues with the need to do something and I think we’ve got to focus on the kids today and the kids that have not even born yet,” he said.

But 58 minutes later, after the four other commissioners had spoken, the board voted to kill the project that has consumed so much time, energy and money since 2015. The motion directed the county manager to write a letter to the School Board saying that “option A is not fiscally available,” directed staff to stop any further spending on this project, asked the School Board for its forecast of capital needs over the next four years and directed staff to retain a real estate agent to explore the sale of the Boyd property.

Commissioner Tommy Thompson was the first to declare emphatically and directly that it was time to kill the high school construction plan. Three of his colleagues followed, including Bill Lapsley, who had done more than any commissioner to try to broker a compromise.

“The whole disagreement is what are we going to do with the Stillwell building,” Thompson said. “That’s where the basis of everything is.” He said he had dealt with the HHS decision “so long that I dream about it” but that on Tuesday night he slept well after deciding to drop the whole thing.

School Board Chair Amy Lynn Holt and Blair Craven, who had been involved in a behind-the-scenes effort to save the project, were critical of the county’s decision but said the School Board’s work would go on.

“Just shocked. Totally shocked that our kids were not put first,” School Board Chair Amy Lynn Holt said when it was over. “We’re in the process of getting a total facility assessment. Commissioners will get that, I think we told them wintertime or so.” School administrators are interviewing architects next week for the facility study. When the study is finished, HHS is likely to remain at the top.

“The need hasn’t gone away,” she said. “We’ll just have to see what the architect says with the facility assessment.”

Craven echoed that, and said selling the Boyd property will severely limit the School Board’s options.

“I think selling the property specifically is extremely short-sighted,” he said. “They grabbed their marbles up and ran home. It’s sad.”

It also became clear that commissioners were angry at a letter from the School Board asking the county to either fund an option costing $65 million or allow the School Board to start from scratch with a new architect.

“To me this is not an option,” Charlie Messer said, describing the School Board’s communication as “if we don’t get this, we want to do this.”

“That’s not the way we build schools, that’s not the way we built Mills River, that’s not the way we built Clear Creek … that’s not the way we built six or seven others. I just think there’s too much disagreement. Maybe we need to pull the plug and look at something that will work for the next 10 years in Henderson County.”

In the hour-long discussion, commissioners also described the negative reaction they had been receiving over the HHS cost, their anger at remarks other elected officials made the day before questioning the County Commission’s authority to make school construction decisions and their frustration with project delays they blamed on city politics.

City-county conflict

 

Commissioners talked at length, and for the first time publicly, about the city-county conflict and the hostility from constituents, as they described it, to spending $50-75 million on a new HHS campus.

“Every day I hear something from some constituent that say, ‘We don’t need what you’re doing.,’” Thompson said. “This is a real problem, the people in the community as a whole believe that the whole deal that we’re dealing with is ridiculous. I personally have no problem with not continuing to deal with this any further. I would like to close it down, call it quits.”

“Every one of us is elected by people throughout the county,” Lapsley said. At grocery stores and gas station, “If I see somebody, I ask them how we’re doing. Oh, by the way, what do you think of what the commissioners are doing about Hendersonville High School, and invariably in all of those places, outside the Hendersonville city limits, every time it’s, ‘You people are crazy. Why are you spending 65, 70 million dollars on a high school in Hendersonville?’ Then I’m having to go through the justification process: ‘We’re doing it for the kids. We’re trying to do the best we can. This expense is justified.’ But invariably, every time, that’s what we get hit with. ‘Why are you people doing this?’ Are we influenced by that? Absolutely. Those are the people that vote in the election that put us up here. … We got four high schools. Three out of the four high schools are outside the Hendersonville city limits and their loyalties are there. We get hit with that constantly. That’s the real world of the political arena we operate in.”

Boyd property

“The way this matter has come about, the way it’s been dealt with, I have no problem selling the Boyd property (and the Fassifern Court property) and moving on in later years to do what we need to do,” Thompson said.

Hawkins said: “We would do well to explore through a commercial realtor what we might be able to sell the Boyd property that we bought to build a new school on, which turned out to be more the request to renovate the Stillwell building, so that we could recoup some of that $4.8 million that we’ve spent trying to find a path for the Hendersonville High School back to the county taxpayers.”

“We have spent over $4 million in planning, in architect’s fees and demolition, on and on, to date,” Lapsley said. “We bought the property on the assumption it’s going to be used for the school. If we’re not going to do the project I think we need to sell the property.”

With the economy booming compared to where it stood when the price was projected to be $52 million, trying to revive the project now is too expensive, commissioners said,

“I don’t think at this point this county can buy into a 63- or 65 million-dollar project that’s the option the Board of Ed favored in this recent letter,” Hawkins said. “We’ve been chasing this pricetag for the last two or three years and we’ve had significant delays that has driven price up. Our resident architect from Laurel Park came to the board with a half-baked idea about how we could save money and when the board contacted the construction company referred to they wouldn’t even come and look at what was suggested. That delayed the project getting started.”

A demand from the city of Hendersonville forced the county to buy the Fassifern Court property for additional parking. “And the other delays have cost the taxpayers $4.8 million in architects and other studies,” Hawkins said.

Other capital needs

While they’ve dropped the HHS plan, the county did ask the School Board to deliver a report on the overall capital needs systemwide, a report that Holt said is already under way. Hawkins said the School Board also needs to tell commissioners what it wants to do with the Stillwell building. “It’s the Board of Ed’s building, and if you’re able to raise millions of dollars from the nonprofits, that doesn’t affect us at all. If the Board of Ed owns the Stillwell building, they can sell it, do whatever they decide to do with it.”

County authority

 

County Attorney Russ Burrell said state law and numerous state Supreme Court decisions have affirmed that as a practical matter school construction is a joint responsibility of boards of commissioners and school boards.

“They can build the schools with any funds they have on their land,” he said of school board's power under state law. “But long ago our courts said, really that’s unrealistic because the Board of Education doesn’t possess the taxing power. Their only real source of revenue outside (state) tax revenue are fines and forfeitures.”

“There’s two boards but (state law) only gives one board taxing authority and that’s this board right here,” Lapsley said. He ticked off the examples of the commissioners and School Board working in harmony to site and build new schools — Edneyville elementary, the Innovative High School and others.

Commissioners also pushed back on the remarks made by Laurel Park Mayor Carey O'Cain and Hendersonville Mayor Pro Tem Ron Stephens calling on the commissioners to give the HHS decision to the School Board.

“When we see headlines like this,” he said, holding up the front page of the Times-News, “criticizing our authority, it's totally out of bounds, it’s inappropriate and I think it’s unfair.” Those who believe the board has overstepped its bounds, he said, can file a lawsuit, lobby the Legislature to change state law or run for office.

Lapsley also defended project architect Chad Roberson of ClarkNexsen against criticism.

“There’s been considerable criticism in recent weeks of the project architect and I for one don’t appreciate it,” he said. “I think the project architect has done a good job, he’s done everything we’ve asked on all these projects. I’ve seen no evidence of any tinkering with the numbers trying to make one option look better, and I think the criticism is unfounded.” The architect-of-record was selected in 2014, he added, jointly by the commissioners and the School Board.

Lapsley blamed politics for dooming the HHS project.

“It’s a shame we get down to this point where we’re ready to go, with a brand new state-of-the-art facility for the students and then all of a sudden two months ago we found out we need, oh by the way, to ask for more money to do a larger auditorium and a second gym. That’s caused all the turmoil,” he said. “We can go around pointing fingers but in the end we’ve got an issue related to cost.”

“I have worked personally very hard in the past two months and especially in the last 30 days to try and reach a compromise that everyone could live with. We were that close a week ago,” Lapsley said, holding his thumb and index finger a half-inch apart. “Then things like this come out in the paper the day before we were going to meet and this board gets lambasted and human nature being what it is, this is not a good thing. This gets people’s hairs to stand up at the back of their neck. We’ve been caught up in a local political situation that in the end the students and education program is going to suffer and I feel bad about it. But doggone it, we’ve got to move on. … I don’t see that anything different is going to happen two to three months from now and that’s sad. I’m so disappointed but I’m tired of dealing with it. We need to close the door and if it needs to be reopened again in two to three years when all of us get thrown out of office” it can happen under a new board.

Given an opportunity to speak before the vote on the motion, Holt said the School Board was willing to continue talking.

“I definitely don’t want discussions to just end and it be we’re not doing a school,” she said. “My board feels we need to do what’s right by those students and it would be the same if it was any other district, if it was West that we were talking about. I don’t want discussions to end because that’s not going to be what’s best for the kids.”