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Cherokee County votes to move forward with consolidating high schools; Murphy, Andrews, and Hiwasse Dam to become one

Several years of debate ended Monday night in Cherokee County after a nearly four hours of debate regarding whether or not three high schools in Cherokee County, Murphy High, Andrews High, and Hiwassee Dam High School, should be consolidated into one facility. After hearing from nearly two dozen people both for and against the project, a divided Cherokee County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 to move forward with consolidation.

The board first voted to build one high school on May 28, 2020 — however, after concerns from the community — the board revised the decision Monday night. 

The district approved building a new facility that is expected to sufficiently hold about 1,000 students — which is about double the population of the county’s three existing high schools. 

The new high school site will be next to Tri-County Early College and Oaks Academy in Murphy, North Carolina.

“One thing is for certain, change is coming. We can either get in front of change and manipulate it and use it to our advantage or we can be victims of it,” Cherokee County Superintendent Dr. Jeana Conley said. “There are 34 vocational programs that Cherokee County students will have access to and will be able to use as part of their graduation requirements, paid for, free of charge, by leveraging that property. That’s the reason why it was chosen beside Tri-County Community College,” Conley said.

With commissioners voting to approve the new construction, the next step is for the project to be bid out to contractors. With the process just beginning, the new school isn’t expected to be built for at least four years.

Residents were torn on the consolidation project — with opponents arguing the consolidation would be a difficult commute for students. The new facility will be located about 6.1 miles — or a 10 minute commute — for students of Murphy High School, a 15.4 miles — or 21 minute commute— for students of Andrews High School, and the furthest commute would be for students of Hiwassee Dam School which would have to travel 20.5 miles — or 28 minutes— to the new school site. 

Proponents of the move spoke about the desperate need of a new high school facility due to the deteriorating conditions at the individual high schools. 

In the 2019-2020 school year, Andrews High reported an average daily membership of just 203 students. 

In the 2019-2020 school year, Hiwassee Dam High reported an average daily membership of just 167 students. 

In the 2019-2020 school year, Murphy High reported the largest average daily membership at 451 students. 

Many of those concerned with the consolidation is how it will impact high school athletics. Both Andrews and Murphy have historical records for championships within their respective schools and current conferences, however, the consolidation will push the new high school to fall into the 3A classification. Hiwassee Dam does not have a football program. The North Carolina High School Athletic Association announced last week that the approved new realignment plans have Andrews, Murphy, and Hiwassee Dam all as 1A schools in Conference 43. 

While the consolidation will push the school into a larger conference, for the first time, it will give students at Hiwassee Dam the opportunity to compete in sports such as football that they are currently unable to compete in. 

The cost of the new construction will be offset by a $15 million grant from the state of North Carolina that Cherokee County received in 2018 through the NC Education Lottery Funds. 

With a new school, comes plans for a new sports complex. Initial plans were to build an entirely new complex next to the new high school, including a new football stadium to account for the larger school population. 

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