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Administrators reach deal to preserve historic HHS for classroom use

Henderson County's top administrator and the county schools superintendent have agreed to explore how the school system can continue using the historic core building of  Hendersonville High School for classroom use as part of the overall construction plan for the 90-year-old school in downtown Hendersonville.

County Manager Steve Wyatt signaled in a letter to schools superintendent Bo Caldwell that the Board of Commissioners was generally supportive of a revised approach that would preserve the historic Stillwell building for classroom use “as part of Hendersonville High School curriculum.”

The letter, dated Aug. 26, is the latest twist in the long and contentious debate about the future of Hendersonville High School and especially the fate of the core classroom building and auditorium designed by Erle Stillwell, a prolific architect whose signature is on the public architecture of the town. The HHS Alumni Association, the faculty and the student body have urged the Board of Commissioners to adopt a construction plan that combines the historic building with new construction. Commissioners rejected that option in a vote last spring and agreed unanimously to stick with that position after a five-hour meeting on Aug. 17.

Even so, commissioners continue to come under criticism for ignoring a School Board recommendation that would have preserved the 1926 building for classrooms. In a School Board forum on Aug. 18 two candidates said they believed commissioners had overstepped their authority by brushing aside the elected body’s recommendation after asking for the recommendation to begin with.

In interviews with the Hendersonville Lightning on Saturday, Wyatt and Caldwell described the meeting that produced the agreement as a positive and cooperative discussion based on a shared goal. The starting point, Wyatt said, was a question. “Is there a way to satisfy all of these constituent groups? Because one constituent group I’m hearing from is people that don’t live in Hendersonville and didn’t go to that school. They don’t want you to go out and spend an extra $12 million.”

Wyatt said the budget for a new HHS would be capped at $52.6 million — the cost of the new-school option commissioners have endorsed. But other options could free up enough money, around $2 million, to fund a basic renovation of the Stillwell building. One way to do that is to eliminate a new auditorium and continue to use the historic red-draped auditorium that students and alumni revere for its central role in Bearcat traditions like Move Up and the senior play. The U-shaped core building would still be used for classrooms. How many and for what subjects has not been discussed.

Caldwell raised the question of whether architects could adjust the footprint of the new facilities “and bring that campus closer together.”

Wyatt said that might be possible.

“If you don’t build an auditorium you save around $3 million,” Wyatt said. "You would make the campus more compact. It gives you a little more flexibility in where you put it and how you configure it. You also take that $3 million and invest in the old school.”

Both Wyatt and Caldwell said their bosses, the elected Board of Commissioners and School Board, are fully aware of the effort.

“I met with Tommy Thompson and Charlie Messer and Ervin Bazzle. The three of them read the letter before I sent it to him,” Wyatt said. “Tommy and Charlie both said yep. And Baz said yep. The devil’s in the details.” By the time the letter went out, Wyatt said he had reached out to all five commissioners. “Just in conversation,” their general reaction was “sounds like a good idea, worth pursuing.”

It's up to the School Board to sketch out the next steps.

“The letter has been shared with all the board members,” Caldwell said. “When Steve Wyatt sent me the letter I wanted to get some clarification because we had just started talking about the classrooms. If it’s a win-win to put the students back in the Stillwell building how are we going to achieve that, what are we going to use it for, are we going to incorporate the auditorium or not, certainly looking at the cost of the project.”

Wyatt said in the letter that school administrators would work with HHS principal Bobby Wilkins "to develop a plan to utilize historic Stillwell Building classrooms ongoing as part of Hendersonville High School curriculum."

“You are also to look into the potential to relocate school administrative offices in the portion of the building not used to educate students,” he added. “Our agreed upon objectives to fully utilize the Stillwell building to fulfill the joint mission of the school system and the county government into the future will be achieved efficiently and economically.”
Wyatt said his office together with school administrators would develop cost estimates to restore and preserve the core classroom building. Funding would take place “over a multiyear time frame leading up to the opening of the new campus in 2020,” he said.

The idea of moving the school system administration to the Stillwell building is on the table by virtue of the letter, he said, although that proposal is more complicated when students are in the mix.

“That was talked about when HHS was completely new” and the Stillwell building was to be vacant, Caldwell said. “I think that now will have to be part of the discussion but on the other hand the question is how much space do you have for student use and how much for central office and even can the two co-exist? That’s just another item to discuss. … I guess everything is on the plate now but right now no decision has been made and we’ll start that discussion at the board meeting” on Sept. 12.

Carey O'Cain, a retired construction manager who has led the Alumni Association's effort to save the historic building for school use, said he was glad to hear of the new proposal. "I applaud that wholeheartedly."