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Bearcat Nation wants to appeal decision on HHS building

HHS graduates file out of the auditorium Friday after Move Up. HHS graduates file out of the auditorium Friday after Move Up.

Seven weeks after the Board of Commissioners voted to build a new Hendersonville High School, the Bearcat nation continues to object.

The HHS Alumni Association, students and faculty members are raising questions about the commissioners’ decision, suggesting that the board ignored a less expensive option and that it overrode the authority of the School Board to guide school construction.
Supporters of saving the Erle Stillwell-designed core classroom building and auditorium want the county commissioners to take another look at a variation of one of five options that architects have presented.
In a 4-3 vote, the School Board recommended the so-called Option 2, which would have bulldozed and replaced the cafeteria, gyms and bandroom but kept the core building. Ten days later commissioners unanimously chose Option 3 — a new HHS on the Boyd property along Asheville Highway.
Carey O’Cain, an HHS graduate and the mayor of Laurel Park, says he’s got an ideal solution that would save money and save the Stillwell building. It’s nothing more than a back-of-a-napkin sketch at the moment. O’Cain does have construction experience. He was an estimator for a national construction company.
“I think this solves so much,” he said of his plan, which starts with a mirror image of the U-shaped classroom building. “It keeps us on budget. It involves zero trailers. It utilizes the Boyd property so it’s not just a parking lot. It utilizes the old building and it provides the opportunity to expand to 1,200 students now and in the future.”
O’Cain has sketched the existing 65,000-square-foot classroom building, added its 85,000-square-foot twin across a plaza and a 15,000-square-foot gym.
“I think it’s a good viable plan,” said Bill Orr, the current president of the Alumni Association, who is among a core group of alumni and others pushing for a second look at the renovation option. “It looks a whole lot like one that the principal and faculty went over with the School Board early on in the process — putting the athletic facility over there on the Boyd property and having the courtyard between the two and building a three-story building that would pretty much match the Stillwell building in style.
“When Carey talked to us about it, he said he used the Clark Nexsen numbers in coming up with the cost for us. It came up about $10 million less. It seems to be a workable solution.”

What is the true cost?

Clark Nexsen, the county’s consulting architect, presented the five options for new construction and renovation. The new construction option commissioners chose had a price tag of $50 million, compared to $53 million for the construction-renovation combination. But the alumni association says a fair comparison must add the cost for renovating the Stillwell building for another use after the students move out.
“This isn’t the cheapest option that they’ve chosen,” said David Rhode, an HHS senior who has led rallies to save the core building. “You do the math and it just doesn’t add up. One of the county commissioners said that Vannoy gave them a report that it would cost $7 million to renovate the school for non-school purposes. You add that to $50 million and that’s $57 million. Renovation is $53 million. We’re happy. The taxpayers are happy.”
Rhode, a politically active Republican headed to Western Carolina University, said he continues to work with alumni and the student body to make that point. He may still be pushing it years from now.
“I’m going to go to college for four years and then come back and run for county commissioner if I don’t die,” he said.
Kimberly Edney Heery admonished commissioners on the issue of cost and transparency.
“You, the commissioners are of the opinion that the Stillwell building should not be renovated for continued use as an educational facility for HHS, but you are going to recommend it be renovated and used for other purposes,” she said at Monday night's Board of Commissioners meeting. “Where is that money going to come from? You are telling taxpayers they will save money by not keeping the Stillwell building part of HHS and then turning around and telling them that they are going to have to pay for its renovation anyway.”
Supporters of renovation also have been citing a section of state law that says school construction and repair “shall be under the control and direction of … the board of education.” (County Attorney Russ Burrell told commissioners that that’s superseded by another statute that gives financing authority to the board of commissioners.)

‘They want to check it off’

Alumni Association members are careful to point out that they appreciate the commissioners and know they have a hard job deciding what path to take.
“The feeling of Alumni board is we’re going to be so disappointed if they move all the classrooms but on other hand we still feel the heart of the school will remain no matter what building we’re in,” said Orr, who graduated in 1961. “The irony of this would be if 10 years from now with a growing population that they then have to purchase the Stillwell building and use that for classrooms.”
He thinks now is a good time to look at that and other possibilities.
“When you’re talking about spending $50-60 million there’s nothing wrong with a little more deliberation,” he said. “Now is the time to avoid any mistakes.”
O’Cain wants the opportunity to show commissioners his plan, which he estimated would cost $45 million.
“This is purely a concept,” he said. “Why would the taxpayers not be interested in this and why am I not able to get traction?”
O’Cain said he and other supporters of the saving the 1926 building get the feeling that the train may have left the station.
“It seems like they want to check this off the list and move forward,” he said. “I think they’re moving forward in the wrong direction.”