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Despite objections from Commissioners Shearl, Higdon, Macon County moves forward with construction of new Franklin High School and Highlands School renovations

During Tuesday night’s joint budget meeting held between the Macon County Board of Commissioners and the Macon County Board of Education, a 3-2 vote was cast to proceed with the construction of a new Franklin High School. After additional discussion, a 4-1 vote was cast to also advance to the next phase of the renovation project for Highlands School.

The meeting commenced with a presentation from project architects, LS3P, detailing the extensive planning and budgeting processes that have culminated in the approval of the new Franklin High School project. The total projected ceiling amountfor the new high school stands at approximately $137 million. The project aims to replace outdated facilities and address long-standing issues such as ADA compliance, with the goal of providing a state-of-the-art educational environment for students.

During the meeting, each commissioner voiced their perspectives on the project. Commissioner Josh Young kicked off the conversation by expressing significant concerns regarding the sudden increase in projected costs, which had jumped from earlier estimates. He stressed the need for transparency and a thorough understanding of the financial implications before committing to such a large expenditure. Young highlighted the importance of having detailed plans and clear communication with constituents to justify the investment.

“We are talking about a significant amount of taxpayer money here,” Young said. “I need to see detailed plans and understand where these additional costs are coming from before I can fully support this project.”

In response, representatives LS3P, provided an in-depth explanation of the factors contributing to the cost increase. They discussed the complexities of the construction process, the inclusion of modern amenities, and the need for compliance with current building codes and ADA requirements. The detailed breakdown included the replacement of the football stadium and track, the construction of a new field house, press box, home side concessions building, and extensive stormwater management improvements.

“The stormwater management improvements alone are a significant undertaking,” explained Emily with LS3P. “We have to resize the underground piping system to handle both on-site and off-site water, ensuring that the new infrastructure can adequately manage stormwater and prevent flooding issues that have plagued the current facility.”

Commissioner John Shearl spoke against the project saying that he was not made aware of many of the details of the project, which have changed over the last few months, until earlier on Tuesday.

“Without knowing exactly why we’ve had such an increase, without seeing the plans, without all this, and without talking to our constituents, I just, I’m stuck,” said Commissioner Shearl. “I understand the timing and stuff, and it is best. But it’s best for one category. It’s not best for everybody across the board, in my mind. And so that’s who I have to look out for in my mind. What’s in the best interest of the taxpayers? And a $20 million [project cost] increase without legitimate plans to see? I just can’t support this. And I don’t want to not support it. It’s been, as everybody says, it’s much needed. These children with disabilities, they deserve the right to be able to access their school facilities. I get it. And I want them to as well.  I’m not downplaying the need. But to hit me with a $137 million project unexpectedly, it’s tough. It’s hard.”

Although Commissioner Shearl stated he couldn’t support moving forward to the project because the increase project cost were not fully explained, detailed explanations were given during the budget joint session and all questions were thoroughly answered, including how inflation alone accounts for a 1 percent increase in project cost each month the project is delayed. Even after having each of his concerns answered, Shearl noted he still was not informed on the issue.

Macon County Board of Education Chairman Jim Breedloveexpressed his confusion to Shearl’s claims that he was left in the dark on the information because the board of education and the commissioners have held half a dozen liaison meetings on the topic and the school system has held community public information meetings to present the information. Both the county and the school system’s websites also feature the detailed design plans and project scope and have for months, giving anyone ample time to review the project.

“We have sponsored public meetings,” said Chairman Breedlove. “We actually have put all the information out at the central office. We hired the architects to put together a mock-up showing exactly what the building pretty much looked like, along with the plans. It been available for public review for several months now. It’s actually on our website. The county put it on y’all’s website also, showing the plans and what we planned on.”

Chairman Breedlove also offered clarification as to Shearl’s confusion surrounding the $137 million cost estimate. “If you look at the project funding summary for the high school, you’ll see that the actual construction cost for it was $113 million and some change,” explained Breedlove. “It’s the other add-on or what I would refer to as soft cost, which include all the fees, some of which have been paid, which includes architectural fees, a contingency fund of over $6.3 million. So everything about that, I hope it’s not misconstrued. Our board has met. We’ve talked about it. We’ve had the information out there. And we feel like it is a project, and the cost, to put it bluntly, is as good as it’s going to get. If we continue to delay, things just continue to go up. Four or five years ago, we were looking at fees quite a bit less in terms of that. And now, the final thing to say, the $62 million grant that we have to procure, which should make this whole thing much, much more affordable. So please don’t misconstrue, we took the action because we feel very, comfortable with the people that are working for us, which is LS3P, and also Carroll Daniel, we feel like that we have the best team put together, to construct a high school that the community can be proud of.”

On a motion made by Commissioner Josh Young and seconded by Commissioner Danny Antoine, the Macon County Board of Education voted 3-2 to move forward with the Franklin High School Project. Commissioners John Shearl and Paul Higdon cast the dissenting votes.

The renovation project for Highlands School was also a focal point of the meeting. The board discussed the project’s scope, which includes new classroom additions, updated facilities, and crucial infrastructure improvements. The budget ceiling for this project is set at $8.5 million.

Representatives from Vannoy Construction and LS3P provided detailed explanations, citing factors such as unfavorable soil conditions discovered during geotechnical assessments, which necessitated additional foundation work. They also discussed the need for updated structural designs to support new construction, and the inclusion of modern facilities that meet current educational standards.

“We’ve learned a lot about the site conditions over the course of this project,” said Kevin with Vannoy Construction. “The soil conditions, in particular, required us to design a more robust foundation to ensure the new structures are safe and durable.”

Commissioner Shearl voiced support for the project but againraised concerns about the substantial cost increase from the initial estimates. He questioned the factors contributing to the rise in projected expenses and emphasized the need for a thorough understanding before committing additional taxpayer funds.

“How much fluff have you got in that? Without seeing the plans, I mean, are there things in those plans that somebody just created,” Shearl asked. “Or is that sure enough what the school needs? I mean, there’s got to be some reason behind this. “I mean, I’m in the dark with this, with no information whatsoever. This is the first time I’ve seen any of these slides, any discussion, anything.”

Hillary Wilkes, who represents the Highlands District on the board of education again addressed Shearl’s claims that he was not informed about the Highlands project prior to Tuesday night’s meeting.

“Mr. Shearl, you’ve mentioned that several times, that this is the first time you’ve seen this, but I invited you when I presented this at Highland School about two months ago,” Wilkes said.“I’ve offered to take you through plans, you’ve had access to LS3P, you hired LS3P. You could have made every effort, which you do, gathering all of your numbers to see these plans. They are available to you. I hope tonight, as my colleague and representative for Highlands, that you will consider this and I hope that you will support this along with me.”

County Manager Roland reassured the board and the public that the projects were financially feasible within the county’s current budget and would not necessitate a tax increase. He emphasized the urgency of moving forward to lock in current costs and avoid further inflationary pressures.

“Delaying these projects will only result in higher costs in the future,” Roland explained. “We need to act now to take advantage of current pricing and ensure we stay within our budget.”

Offering Commissioner Shearl additional time to review the Highlands renovation project, since there was less of a time crunch, Commissioner Josh Young made a motion to approve $16,000 in funding needed Tuesday night to move forward with the project with the intent to vote on the full $500,000 needed to fully move into the next phase during the board’s June meeting. Young’s motion was seconded by Commissioner Antoine and passed 4-1 with Higdon casting the line dissenting vote.

With the board’s approval, the next steps involve entering into contract negotiations with LS3P for the Franklin High School project and proceeding with the procurement and bidding phase for Highlands School. The aim is to finalize plans and begin initial construction work over the summer to ensure minimal disruption to the school year.

“We plan to issue construction documents by early June and start the bidding process immediately afterward,” said Emily with LS3P. “Our goal is to begin construction over the summer and complete key phases before the start of the new school year.”

Commission Antoine, who voted in favor of the projects, emphasized the importance of timely execution. “We’ve delayed these projects long enough,” he said. “It’s time to move forward and provide our students with the facilities they deserve.”

 

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