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Commissioners Shearl and Higdon vote to suspend construction of new FHS;  Antoine, Young and Shields cast majority vote to move into next phase

Last updated on September 14, 2023

Macon County Commission Chairman Paul Higdon has been consistent with his vocal with his opposition to building a new facility for Franklin High School, citing high costs and political promise to be fiscally conservative as his reason. Commissioner John Shearl, who has wavered in stance on the proposed project, claiming to support it while campaigning, even voting in favor of spending tax dollars to move forward with early steps of the process, clarified his position on the facility Tuesday night when he made a motion to suspend the construction of a new high school facility. 

While Commissioner Shearl affirmed his stance opposing the new school, his justification was anything but clear. First, Commissioner Shearl stated that he wanted to suspend the project — but that doesn’t mean he didn’t want a new facility to be built ever — just not right now. Shearl originally justified the call for a “45-60 day” suspension of the project due to the lack of a state budget. The state budget itself has no direct impact on funding for the project, however, county leaders intend to apply for the state’s Needs-Based School Construction grant which would provide up to $60 million for the project. Without a state budget, the county can’t apply for the grant and Shearl said without the grant, he does not support building a new high school. 

Commissioner Shearl also said that he wanted to suspend the project because he didn’t support building a new facility on the site of the existing campus, despite the years of research and property evaluations the have been conducted by both the board of education and county to determine the current location is the best feasible location for construction. Commissioner Shearl did not have a different location to suggest, rather he just said he didn’t like the current site. 

Commissioner Shearl then made comments suggesting he was opposed to building a new high school altogether and instead thinks renovations and repairs to existing facilities would suffice. Shearl acknowledged that there are ADA compliance issues with the existing buildings and that it is not handicapped accessible, however, he noted that handicapped students are currently attending the school, suggesting the issues are not immediate enough to warrant a new building. Shearl also stated that if the county can renovate and repair the newly purchased Higdon Property to be used for education purposes, they should be able to renovate and repair the high school since the buildings were built around the same time, despite numerous architects and engineers explaining repairs and renovations were likely not feasible and certainly not cost-effective. 

If built, the new facility will consist of full high school amenities and site improvements including demolition of existing campus buildings and infrastructure, new parking areas, drop-off drives, athletic fields, site utilities and stormwater management, and integrating the new high school stadium.

Despite Commissioner Higdon and Commissioner Shearl voting to suspend the construction project, plans for a new high school will move one step closer after the majority of the board, Commissioner Gary Shields, Commissioner Danny Antoine, and Commissioner Josh Young voted to approve the contract amendment permitting the project’s architectural firm to move forward into the next phase on Tuesday night.

Commissioner Shields said he supported moving forward and feared if the project was suspended at this juncture, it would essentially mean hopes of ever building a new school are over. Commissioner Antoine said that he views moving into the next phase of the project as an investment into the county’s youth, not a gamble. Commissioner Josh Young reiterated that although Shearl stated he was not privy to the initial planning for the project, it was the existing board of county commissioners who voted unanimously to move forward with construction and that now, after the county has already spent $2 million dollars and is looking to spend the next $2 million is not the time to be debating the board’s intention.

The next phase of the project includes developing the Construction Documents needed for the construction of the main campus of the proposed facility. According to the project timeline, those documents are expected to be submitted to the county by February 2024. 

Things completed so far: 

-Begin Design 1 August 2022

-Schematic Design Submittal 31 October 2022

-Design Development Submittal 12 September 2023

– February 9, 2023 commissioners voted to proceed with both the construction documents and procurement phases for the new high school stadium. 

As of right now, the only aspects of the project that have the approval to move forward are completing the construction documents for Phase 1 (the high school stadium) by September 30, 2023 and the procurement documents for Phase 1 by November 30, 2023, and now after Tuesday night’s vote, the completion of construction documents for the main campus of Franklin High School, which are expected to be completed by February 2024. If the county decides to follow through with the high school project, the current schedule estimates that Phase 2 of the project would be completed and ready by the 2026-2027 school year with the entire project being completed by December 2026 — 5 1/2 years after the process first officially began. 

Without further action by the board — the Franklin High School project will reach a stopping point in February of 2024. 

According to the current schedule, Macon County leaders are expected to receive bids for the construction of the project by March 1, 2024 for consideration. At that time, commissioners will have to make the final decision on whether or not to build a new Franklin High School campus. 

After Tuesday night’s meeting and lengthy discussion, it is unclear whether or not a new high school facility will be built or not. Commissioner John Shearl said he does not support building a new high school facility on the current campus and he is adamant against building a new facility without securing a $50 to $60 million grant from the state to help offset the overall cost. Commissioner Paul Higdon has been vocal in his opposition to building a new high school facility since the project was first proposed and Tuesday night he double downed on that stance. Commissioner Danny Antoine voted in favor of moving into the next phase of the project to secure construction documents for the main campus, but said if the county was not able to receive the state grant, he would want to put the brakes on the project and put the question on a referendum for the county to vote whether or not to move forward due to the likelihood the construction would need to be funded through an increase in property taxes. 

A referendum is any question, issue, or act referred to a vote of the people by the General Assembly, a local government, or a petition from voters as authorized by law.

The controlling statute, GS 163-287, provides that the governing body of the county, city, or other unit of government (like a special district) that is calling the referendum sets the date of the referendum. The 2013 legislation brought a new uniformity to the question of when a referendum may be held. It provided that all referendums must be held on the day of a regular primary or election and then in 2014, the  General Assembly amended GS 163-287 so it now provides that referendums may be held only at the time of even-year primary and general elections. Based on the general statute, in the event Macon County leaders elect to put the question on the ballot for a vote — the current project schedule, which was construction contracts being awarded at the end of March 2024, would be delayed nearly an entire year. 

The question likely would not be able to appear on a ballot until the November 2024 general election, which means the county would not know where voters stand until after that election, leaving the earliest they would discuss the results to be December 2024, at which time the board of commissioners could have new elected officials. The project would then likely have to be re-bid due to cost changes that occur. Following the same timeline proposed currently, that would mean the county would award construction contracts would be February 2025, four years after the county first began the process when they voted to solicit RFQ (Request for Qualifications) for architectural design services for the project. 

One Comment

  1. JOYCE hANDLEY JOYCE hANDLEY September 20, 2023

    we need to move on with our schools ND DO IT NOW.

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