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Macon leaders withdraw plans to move forward with Highlands PreK renovations

Last week, the Macon County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to cancel a contract with LS3P Architect for the design concept work to renovate an existing space at Highlands School to add two preschool classrooms. The Highlands Preschool project was prioritized and identified as a need by the Macon County Board of Education and garnered significant community support and funding. Despite approving the contract with LS3P for the design work on November, 8, 2022 in the amount of $329,255 and allocating funding for the work, the Macon County Board of Commissioners canceled the contract, costing taxpayers $35,262.40.

During the county commissioner meeting, Macon County Board of Education Jim Breedlove spoke to commissioners and clarified that while the Highlands Project was ranked behind the Franklin High School Project in terms of priority, the project remained a top priority for the school system and would continue to be prioritized and championed by the school system.

While the board of commissioners voted to cancel the contract, their vote was contingent on the Board of Education doing the same, therefore the Macon County Board of Commissioners asked the Macon County Board of Education to take a vote during their regularly scheduled meeting, which was held Monday night, to accept commissioner’s decision to cancel the contract. Aside from the obligated $35k, the remaining balance will revert back to the county’s fund balance, which is currently at an all time high.

On a motion made by Board of Education member Melissa Evans and seconded by Diedre Breeden, the board voted 3-2 in favor of accepting the commissioner’s actions. Chairman Breedlove voted in favor of the motion with board members Hilary Wilkes and Stephanie Laseter voting against the measure.

In a prepared statement, Wilkes expressed her opposition Monday night.

“Last fall, the county commissioners approved approximately $329,000 for LS3P to begin the design process for the Highlands School Project,” said Wilkes. “In December, during the joint meeting with the school board and the county commissioners, a motion to “pause” the contract with LS3P did not carry after there was no second. It was at that joint meeting, the commissioners requested that the school board present a list of the capital improvement priorities for the upcoming budget year. We met as a board in early January and unanimously approved a list which included the Highlands School project ranked as #2, following the Franklin High School project and two emergency items at Nantahala and Macon Middle School. During this time, LS3P continued their work on the Highlands School Project.”

According to Wilkes, the liaison committee, comprised of members of the board of education, central office staff, county staff and members of the board of commissioners, met and at no time was the list of capital improvement priorities amended by the school board representatives during this meeting, nor in any school board meeting since.

Despite the board of education’s continued identification of the Prek project being a priority for the school system, the county framed the conversation as if it was not an identified priority.

“This [the school board’s identification of the project being a priority] was made clear last week by Chairman Breedlove to the commissioners, who went on to vote unanimously to terminate the LS3P contract for the Highlands School Project,” said Wilkes. “After the vote, they immediately began discussing how to reappropriate these funds to other projects. The commissioners have repeatedly used language in their meetings and to constituents to suggest that this project was taken off the table or reprioritized by the school board – which is false.”

Wilkes noted that while funding for the entire Highlands Prek renovation project had not yet been identified, funding for the design concept was already appropriated and the work product LS3P would have submitted to Macon County would have been beneficial if/when the entire project was funded.

“The commissioner’s action to terminate the work of LS3P is unnecessary and egregious,” said Wilkes. “This expense was already in the budget and the work was in process. The idea that there is no need to complete this work without a funding strategy for this project in place is false as we are following a typical timeline for capital projects. The firm is near completion with phase one, and there are two more phases before bids or additional funds are needed to continue. Furthermore, the work for these three total phases is relevant to the project and, with the exception of the cost-estimations and minor code changes, remains viable for future use in bidding.”

Now that the county has canceled the contract with LS3P for the design work, if the district were to revisit the renovation project in the future, they would have to start over, adding extra time and expense in the long run.

“Choosing to stop at this point only serves to significantly lengthen the timeline for the project and raise the cost in the long run,” said Wilkes. “The reality is that this contract, while signed by both boards, is the financial responsibility of the county commissioners. They control the purse strings, and their actions last week were intended to de-fund and indefinitely delay this project. I expressed my disappointment to the commissioners and will express it again here tonight. There is no good reason to take away funds that are already committed to Highlands School.”

Wilkes said the county’s actions sets a precedent that devalues the work of the school board and calls into question the commissioner’s commitment to the Highlands community.

“Not only is this bad business where LS3P is concerned, but it sends the message that the prioritized needs of Macon County Schools do not matter,” said Wilkes. “And, finally, it sends the message that the urgent needs of Highlands School, our students and our community are so unimportant to the commissioners – including to the representative of our own district – that they’ll go in the extreme direction of divesting previously appropriated funds for this project and suspending any progress for this critical work. It has always been my hope that our board and the county commissioners will come together with a joint commitment to properly meet the needs of our students, staff and schools. This is a step in the opposite direction, but I remain hopeful that we will eventually be able to work together for all of Macon County Schools.”

According to Macon County Schools Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin, despite commissioner’s withdrawing their support of the project by ending the contract with LS3P, it remains a priority.

“Macon County Schools will continue to pursue opportunities for the expansion of Pre-K throughout the district, including Highlands,” said Dr. Baldwin. “The Highlands School renovation project will remain one of the school system’s priorities.”

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