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Public weighs in on future needs of Macon County Schools

Last updated on December 29, 2022

*This is one of several articles that will be written as a result of the December 19, 2022 joint meeting between Macon County Commissioners and Macon County Schools.*

As the Macon County Board of Education and Macon County Board of Commissioners met together for a joint session last Wednesday, half a dozen members of the public signed up to speak during the joint session to let elected officials know their hope for the future of the school system. 

With major facility projects on the agenda for the meeting, members of the public spoke to current projects, future needs, and who they would like to see be involved in shaping the school district’s future. 

Mark Sutton, a longtime administrator for Macon County Schools who was appointed Principal of Macon Middle School last year spoke as a school employee and Macon County Schools parent about the urgency surrounding the lack of ADA accessibility at Franklin High School. 

Sutton, who has shared similar concerns with the board previously, noted that whenever his wife, who was diagnosed with cancer, attends sporting events to watch their child play, she isn’t able to climb the bleachers because they aren’t accessible. She has to be helped to a seat. Sutton referenced a previous basketball game at Franklin High School where elderly people lined the front row of the bleachers because it isn’t feasible for them to climb the bleachers. Having older spectators on the front row presents a safety hazard as they are at risk of injury if players jump out of bounds to recover a ball. 

Sutton noted that when he served as the Principal of Macon Early College, he would often have students enroll in the school because their child needed ADA accommodations that weren’t available at Franklin High School, even though they should be. 

Referencing the Sales Tax Referendum that was on the ballot in November and failed to pass, Franklin High School teacher John deVille argued that while Commissioner John Shearl noted that the referendum failing sends a message that the public wouldn’t support any tax increase, he believes it actually means people didn’t support that specific type of tax increase. According to deVille, he knows individuals who support raising the property tax instead of sales tax because the property tax is a progressive tax while the sales tax is a regressive tax. 

Commissioner Shearl also noted that the toured Franklin High School and based on the urgent nature surrounding discussions for a new facility, he expected the walls to be falling in, however, he was impressed with how sound the facility appeared to be during his tour. Addressing comments from county leaders that the repair and renovations at Franklin High School are not currently an emergency, deVille said that walking through the building it is difficult to see the underlying issues such as a failing HVAC system that would oftentimes leave classrooms feeling like a sauna.

Click here to read the overview of Highlands-specific projects discussed during the joint session

Public comment also featured resounding support for Commissioner Gary Shields to remain as the county’s liaison to the school board. Each election, the county commissioners are assigned various boards and organizations to serve as the commission’s liaison to make intergovernmental functions easier. For example, the health department has a liaison, the planning board has a liaison, and the sheriff’s office has a liaison, as do community organizations such as Vaya Health and Cowee School. Generally, board liaisons are assigned based on commissioner interest or areas of expertise and commissioners attend the other board’s meetings or functions. Liaison assignments have historically been given during the first meeting of the new board in December, however this year, commissioners decided to wait to assign liaisons and tasked County Manager Derek Roland with reviewing the committee list to see which assignments are required by law or other policy and which are not. While there has not been any official or public discussion regarding which commissioners would be assigned to which committees, comments from Commissioner Gary Shields and the public indicate private conversations have been occurring that suggest Shields, a former educator, principal, and school board member, would not be reappointed to serve as the liaison for the school system. 

DeVille was the first of many people to speak in support of Shields remaining the school board liaison, confirming that there have been rumors circulating that Shields is not being considered. Shields attends nearly every monthly meeting of the Macon County Board of Education and has served as a liaison to the board since he was first elected to the commission.

Shearl responded to public comment regarding concern over Shields’ liaison assignments saying that while he had not heard anything that would indicate Shields’ was not being concerned as the district’s liaison, he did believe that a fresh set of eyes and new ideas could bring change and could be a good thing. Shearl also said he wanted to make it transparent that while there has been a lot of speculation since the election regarding his, and other commissioner’s stances on the high school project, he did support something being done at the facility, however, he doesn’t believe a complete replacement is the answer. 

Shearl said FHS has no structural issues, and that although several rooms are substandard, he is against a total replacement.

“My wife wants a new kitchen, but I’m not going to tear my house down for that,” Shearl said. 

Shearl referenced the lack of visible structural issues as being his primary basis for not seeing the need for a new facility at this time. He also noted that while several rooms and aspects of the high school are substandard and need to be repaired, finding a solution that can be done within the county’s budget is his primary focus. 

Macon County Schools parent Heather Dombroskie addressed the board saying that she believes there have been “loud opinions from people who’ve never set foot in any [Macon County] school.” Without firsthand knowledge of the needs within the school from being inside, Dombroksie said it makes sense why people wouldn’t support additional funding for improvements. Like deVille, Dombroskie disagreed with Commission Chair Paul Higdon’s comments that the current state of Franklin High School didn’t constitute an emergency and asked him directly, “Why wait until it’s an emergency?”

Dombroskie made the case that she believes the sales tax referendum failed to pass in Macon County because voters were uninformed about the measure and that the county should support the school system even if it means a small tax increase. 

John Mira-Knippel, who serves as President of Tektone, Chairman of the Angel Medical Center Board of Directors,  and member of the Macon County Economic Development Commission spoke to commissioners about the economic benefit Franklin High School on the county. 

According to Mira-Knippel, when new businesses are considering relocating to Macon County or when employees are considering relocating here for jobs, they look at the new hospital facility as being innovative and progressive, however, when they look at Franklin High School they question the county’s commitment to the community and lack of investment in the future. Mira-Knippel said as a Franklin High School graduate, it pains him to refer potential employees to Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School in Georgia, however, he has to frequently because the Macon County facilities are not up to par. From an economic standpoint, Mira-Knippel noted that if the county wants to recruit new businesses and for the county to be able to address workforce shortages by encroaching workers to relocate to the area to fill the jobs in the area, there needs to be improvements to the county’s education. Mira-Knippel that while Macon’s current demographic list the average age in the county as being 55 years old, the workers being recruited and considering moving here are younger and have families and the state of the schools are crucial to the county’s economic future. 

Western Carolina University Professor Melissa Faetz previously worked as a teacher for the Macon County School system and has two sons who attend Franklin High School. One of Faetz’s sons, Patrick, was featured in the county’s video demonstrating the lack of ADA accessibility on the Franklin High School Cancer and highlighted the difficulties disabled students like Patrick, who has Cerebral Palsy, face just getting around the school. 

To watch a video of Patrick’s daily commute to his classes, click here

Faetz said that although she and her husband encouraged Patrick to attend Macon Early College because it would have been easier and accessible for Patrick, he wanted to be a Panther. Faetz said the staff within the school system have been extraordinary in making Patrick’s high school possible, however, the accommodations to make Patrick’s school experience manageable is not the same as providing him and equal opportunity to receive an education, something the school system is legally required to do. 

For Patrick to get two and from some of his classes, he has to navigate long hallways and go around access points that only have stairs for multiple levels rather than an elevator and when students are only allotted 5 minutes of transition time between periods, the 15-minute route Patrick has to take means he misses out on instructional time. 

Although Patrick’s time at Franklin High School is nearing completion, Faetz said she and her family have vowed to pursue all options to ensure future students are afforded every opportunity they are entitled to at Franklin High School. She informed the board that she has been in discussions with disability rights advocates and have been considering legal avenues to bring Macon County Schools in line with ADA/IEDA accessibility laws. 

Newly elected commissioner Danny Antoine noted that after watching the video featuring Patrick, he was on the forefront of his mind during his tour of the high school campus and with Patrick in mind, Antoine said that he came to the conclusion that even if the walls aren’t crumbling, the high school’s current state does constitute an emergency because of the burden it places on students like Patrick. 

Answering the question as to why the ADA issues are considered an emergency now when they have been known about for decades, Commissioner Shields stated that whenever conversations about the ADA issues at the school were brought up, promises of a new high school being in the cards were always reiterated. Because ADA laws are ever-changing, buildings such as Franklin High School have been “grandfathered” in, allowing them to not have to meet current regulations.

When FHS was built in the 1950s, it met all ADA rules and regulations of that time, which were virtually non-existent since the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) wasn’t established by Congress until 1990. Prior to the 1990 ACT, the first significant shift from a legal perspective in public policy for the disabled didn’t occur until 1973 with the passage of Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act — even by that time, the main building was already 20 years old. Generally speaking, under the law, because some parts of FHS were built prior to 1990, those buildings do not have to meet the 2010 ADA standards, however, they do have to make a good-faith effort to remove barriers of accessibility. Also under the law, however, if Macon County were to start renovations of the school that resulted in structural changes of the older buildings, the entire facility would have to be renovated to meet the 2010 ADA standards. Because of that, conversations by past county leaders regarding ADA accessibility concerns at the high school have run into the “if you fix one thing, you have to fix it all” discussion, followed by “it would make more financial sense to build a new facility to address all issues rather than spending the significant amount needed to become fully ADA compliant which wouldn’t address the other facility needs.” 

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