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Behind the scenes, negotiators seek compromise on HHS

Although a wide gulf seems to separate the warring county commissioners and School Board over Hendersonville High School, a compromise design may be closer than appearances would suggest.

Back-channel work by a small group of elected officials is making progress toward a potential plan that would renovate the historic Erle Stillwell-designed auditorium, connect the historic classroom building with a new HHS and possibly use part of the old building for band and the performing arts, those involved in or aware of the talks told the Hendersonville Lightning.
“We’re hoping that we get some kind of estimate (of the cost), whether we connect the building, using the auditorium and first floor for Hendersonville High and stay in budget or not exceed it by $14 million,” School Board Chair Amy Lynn Holt said Tuesday.
The negotiators have asked ClarkNexsen architect Chad Roberson, who has worked on the HHS project from the start, to draw up the new design and come up with a cost projection, Holt said.
“We’re not going to know anything until he gets that information back to us, whether it’s feasible or not,” she said.
When the history is written of the tortured path to a new Hendersonville High School, the writer might excavate an obscure meeting at a local bar. An impromptu summit at Southern Appalachian Brewing Co. laid the groundwork for a compromise. The elected officials spotted at the Locust Street brewery included Commissioner Bill Lapsley, City Councilman Jeff Miller and School Board member Blair Craven.
“Southern Appalachian Brewery summit,” Craven said with a chuckle when asked about diplomacy over a beer. “That has a nice ring to it. I think it’s my job as an elected official to meet with other elected officials to make things happen. We were just out having a beer after work. We’re just trying to get something done. Trying to make sure costs are in line with what we thought, trying to build a high school I can be proud, that my kids are going to go through forever and that the community is going to be proud of. I’m confident we’re going to get something done and I’m confident all elected officials in Henderson County are going to be on the same page.”
Lapsley and Miller were less forthcoming about the Southern App summit or other negotiations, saying they didn’t want to jinx an agreement on an issue fraught with politics and emotion.
“The parties are talking and I think that’s good,” Lapsley said. “School Board members are talking with the commissioners informally. People are meeting one to one to about it and we’re trying to come come up with a solution. I’m cautiously optimistic.”
Miller said he didn’t want to talk about the negotiations because they’re sensitive and could always be derailed.
The School Board did not talk about the Hendersonville High School project during its regular meeting on Monday night. But Holt and board members Rick Wood and Michael Absher all said the next morning that they were aware of the back-channel talks and expected drawings and cost projections soon.
“Nothing has been decided,” Absher said. We’re just still waiting to hear what ClarkNexsen comes back with after conversations.”
Keith Dalbec, a former Hendersonville High School principal, said he had a conversation with County Commission Chair Michael Edney about the controversy over the $11 million cost overrun. After he read coverage in of the School Board’s May 14 meeting, Dalbec posted a comment on line.
“This stirs the pot for the fall Commissioner race,” Dalbec wrote. “The firing range helped to defeat Sheriff McDonald. Will Mike Edney stick to his guns and continue to resist recommendations from other alums to incorporate the Stilwell building and save millions? Etowah, Dana and the Edneyville High School are good examples blending old and new.”
After the posting, Edney reached out to Dalbec. When the two met, the commission chair told Dalbec that the split was not as dire as it looked.
“Mike said that Lapsley and Jeff had met,” Dalbec said. “He did confirm that they had drawn up a plan for the high school.”
One reason to connect the old and new schools is security. School Board members and administrators have said they’re worried about students walking outdoors between the two buildings.
“I know that Grady (Hawkins) has said and Tommy (Thompson) has talked about it won’t hurt them to walk,” Holt said. “It’s not so much a walking issue as them not being where somebody can enter,” Holt said. “Obviously we can’t build brick walls and never be able to do things outside. We’re not in a prison but we’ve got to be smart about.”
Holt expressed optimism that the new plan could win support of both boards.
“I would think pretty much everybody would be on board with that and I hope the commissioners would be as well.” Still to come, she added, is the architect’s presentation on “what it would look like and what it would cost.”