Seven months after the Advancing Highlands Education Committee (AHEC) presented to the Macon County Board of Commissioners regarding the need for the expansion of the Highlands Middle
School building due to needed renovations as well as the expansion to incorporate two preschool classrooms, the board of Commissioners unanimously voted to move forward with the RFQ (Request For Qualifications)process for architectural design services for the project.
Macon County received three responses to the RFQ and the Joint Facilities Review Committee, which is comprised of representatives from the county and school system reviewed the three firms to answer the RFQ and recommended the county contract with LS3P to complete the architectural design services for the project.
County Manager Derek Roland presented the Joint Facilities Review Committee recommendation to the Macon County Board of Commissioners during the October 18 joint meeting between the county and school board and despite unanimously approving to move forward with the RFQ process in May, Commissioners Josh Young and Paul Higdon voted against contracting with LS3P and moving forward with the renovation and expansion project at Highlands School.
Commissioner Josh Young said that he doesn’t deny the need for the project and school renovations, however, he believes the project needs to be part of overall planning from the school board and the county. Young noted that the improvements listed in the project were part of the county’s capital improvement plan, as well as requested by the school board during the budget session, however, Young felt more planning needed to occur.
Macon County Commissioner Chair and Highlands representative Jim Tate responded to Young’s concern noting that Young voted to support the $120 million new facility construction project in Franklin and should give Highlands the same consideration.
“You are talking about a $120 million for the FHS project, but where are half of those funds coming from to pay for that,” Tate asked. “It would be nice to throw Highlands a bone, since they will be paying for a significant part of this Franklin High School project.”
Commissioner Paul Higdon said the full scope of the project was not part of the capital improvement plan and due to the county’s obligation to 50-60 other buildings — many of which have significant needs — he couldn’t support the project further.
“I think it is a worthy project, but as leaders of the county and of the school board we must exhibit better planning and better appropriation of taxpayer dollars and provide services at all levels and all sections of Macon County,” said Higdon.
On a motion made by Commissioner Tate and seconded by Commissioner Ronnie Beale, the vote to enter into negotiations for the architectural design services for renovations at Highlands School passed by a vote of 3-2 with Commissioners Young and Higdon opposing the measure.
Roland then asked the board to vote to approve an application for North Carolina Lottery Funds in the amount of $500,000 for the Highlands School renovation project. The funds, which are part of the repair, renovation, and expansion fund with the NC Lottery, are earmarked for Macon County and only require the grant application in order for Macon County to receive the funds.
Commissioner Higdon said because he voted against the Highlands Renovation Project earlier in the meeting, he would also be voting against applying for grants to fund the project.
The vote to apply for the lottery funds, which will offset the taxpayer dollars needed to fund the project, passed by a vote of 4 to 1, with Commissioner Higdon opposing.
The renovation and expansion of Highlands Middle School started due to a lack of available early learning spots in Macon County. Macon County Schools currently has space for just under 100 preschool spots, all of which are located in the Franklin area between the five available preschool spots. The school district’s preschool classrooms are located at South Macon (two classrooms) Iotla Valley (two classrooms) and one at Cartoogechaye.
The grassroots group Advancing Highlands Education Committee (AHEC) raised funds for a planning study to be completed that determined needs of the school that initially estimated $8 million would be needed to meet the school needs. However, that number was reduced to $5 million ahead of the joint session with the project scope being changed to address the most pressing needs.
According to the planning study funded by AHEC, Highlands School is in need of two pre-K
classrooms at 1,200 square feet each, 36 students and a playground that is 2,700 square feet. While the preschool classrooms were the focus of the discussion, the bulk of the project actually consists of renovating the middle school building to accommodate classroom space and career and technical educational opportunities.
Although the board voted 3-2 to contract with LS3P Architects to complete the design and scope of work for the renovation, like the Franklin High School new construction project, nothing is set in stone. With three of the five seats on the Board of Commissioners up for election in November, it is very likely that the outcome of the November election will also determine whether or not the Highlands School expansion project becomes a reality.
Both Young and Higdon, who are not up for election and will remain on the board after November, have both already expressed their opposition to moving forward. If one of the three seats up for grabs during the election also votes against the Highlands project, it would not move forward.
John Shearl who is running against Jerry Moore for the District 1 seat on the board, stated he didn’t believe people knew about the renovation project and question a need for additional preschool classrooms since the Franklin area already had classes. “I am in the middle of researching Highlands School proposal and needs,” said Shearl. “This has not been discussed until recently and is new to a lot of people. Most of the people in Highlands don’t even know about this expansion proposal nor the Pre K. In my research one thing I have found is there are three of these Pre Ks in other county schools already.”
Jerry Moore, who is running against John Shearl for the District 1 seat on the board stated, “The Highlands community is in desperate need of early childhood education to serve families from across the county who live and work in Highlands. I am in full support of renovating Highlands School to provide early childhood education. If we do not invest in our education infrastructure now, we will be investing in more jail cells later,” said Moore.
There are two seats up for grabs in District 2 on the board of county commissioners. Incumbents Gary Shields and Ronnie Beale have both expressed their support of the Highlands Project during their vote on October 18 to move forward.
“Highlands is requesting a pre-k building,” said Beale. “As of now they do not have a general pre-k at all. I think this is an item that we certainly need to look at for the future for Highlands students.”
Betty Cloer Wallace, who is also running for one of the two open District 2 seats said, “Both Highlands and Nantahala Schools should be expanded as proposed to meet the needs of those communities, both educational and civic,” said Wallace.
Danny Antoine, who is also running for election declined to answer questions from this media outlet for a candidate profile, which included his stance on the Highlands School project.