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Commissioners, School Board to meet to resolve HHS funding dispute

Moving quickly to avert a blowup that could derail the Hendersonville High School construction, Henderson County commissioners and School Board members agreed on Wednesday to meet face-to-face next week to resolve a conflict over a newly announced price increase of $11 million.

In meetings with School Board members on Monday, Clark Nexsen architect Chad Roberson and John Mitchell, the county’s business development director, told board members that the plans at $52.6 million included no auxiliary gym and an auditorium of 400 seats instead of 900. Hoping to finalize its 2018-19 budget by Wednesday, county officials asked School Board members to make a new request for $11 million more. The School Board said no. They said they felt misled by presentations and drawings going back to 2016 that had always showed an auxiliary gym and a 900-seat auditorium as part of the total project at the $52.6 million pricetag.

The cost overrun, and the School Board's reaction to it, was only the latest in the long and contentious path to build a new Hendersonville High School, an option favored by the Board of Commissioners and broadly opposed by HHS students, faculty and alumni. The School Board voted against and then in favor of the new-school option before the City Council, in a split vote after an emotional public hearing, approved a rezoning for the project.

County Manager Steve Wyatt and Commissioner Bill Lapsley said the larger auditorium and second gym were always add-ons above the agreed-upon capital cost of $52.6 million.

Lapsley recalled that both the larger auditorium and an auxiliary gym were add-ons beyond the $52.6 million cost Clark Nexsen projected.
“As far as the auxiliary gym, my take on it there’s two gyms at the existing school and we ought to provide two gyms at the new school,” he said. “Last week, when the architect met with us individually and he told us the second gym was going to cost $3 million and the larger auditorium was going to cost $8, my answer was I’ll vote to support the $3 million but not the $8 million. So that was my position last week and tomorrow (in a budget drafting session) if asked that’s exactly what I’ll say.”
Lapsley does not regard the extra $11 million as a cost overrun; it was always known that the practice gym and larger auditorium would cost more.
“The plan is the plan,” he said. “If they changed their mind and don’t like the layout of the buildings that train’s already left the station. We’re here at the 11th hour. I’d like to see us move on with the second gym” and continue repair and renovation of the Stillwell-designed auditorium for the school’s continued use.

“What the board voted on, and it never wavered, was $52.6 million and 161,000 square feet,” Wyatt said. “Michael (Edney) had asked the architect for planning purposes (to price the gym and larger auditorium) and that’s what Chad has done. You include it in footprint but you don’t design that. You design that and amend the price” if the School Board and commissioners agree.
The architect and general contractor, Vannoy Constrcution, are ready to solicit bids and need to know whether the auxiliary gym and 900-seat auditorium are in or out.
“When we went to the city showed the largest possible footprint because to get approval to make it bigger we have to go back to them,” Wyatt said. “There were school people intimately involved but at no time was anything ever committed to other than $52.6 million and 161,000 square feet. I don’t think we care what the 161,000 feet looks like. If they wanted to move things around I don’t think commissioners would have a problem with that. Everyone knew that it was $52.6 million and 161,000 square feet and that those things were not likely to be in there."

Not all commissioners agreed with Wyatt's recollection.

“In the joint meeting we had back in November of ’16, we went into some fairly lengthy discussion on Hendersonville High School,” Commissioner Grady Hawkins said. “At that time it was pointed out that there was an auxiliary gym and a 900-set auditorium and the price was still 52.2 (million). What changed between that meeting? Somewhere the decision was made to go back and pare those down but yet it’s indicated in the November meeting that those other items could be successfully accomplished within that budget.”

The process of “refining the program and refining the budget for each one of those options” resulted in the higher number, Roberson responded. “We also discussed in the May (2016) meeting that there was going to be at least a $10 million (price increase) to add those components to the project.”

The architects say the auxiliary gym would cost $3 million and the larger auditorium $8 million.
Commissioner Charlie Messer said he gets “questions I can’t answer” about the HHS project and its ever-escalating cost.
“Why can’t we keep the old Hendersonville High School gym, the one that was built in the ‘70s? I would like to see the possibility of at least having some dialogue with the School Board to see if that would even be possible to do that because that’s saving a lot of money,” he said. “I don’t know if the county commissioners are going to get crucified for not using the buildings that we have.”
Commissioner Bill Lapsley, a civil engineer, said that would be impossible.
“From my perspective, if the School Board decided to save that building, you’re talking about a total redesign of the project,” he said. “That gym would be right at the front door of a brand-new $60 million school. … I support totally building a second gym. My biggest concern at the moment (is) we’re going to delay the construction project even more. I think we should at least direct the architect to proceed with a second gym and then if we want to debate the auditorium fine.”
The School Board and commissioners will meet at 4 p.m. Thursday, May 24, to discuss the next steps and agree on a construction price.