By Ryan Bilbrey
Macon County’s decision to move to the next phase of the $118 million Franklin High School project seems to be supported by the community at large. That said, there is still time for the residents of the county to voice their opinions on the project and make sure that the new high school fully provides what our students need.
I attended the special joint meeting of the Macon County Board of Commissioners and the Macon County Board of Education on July 26. The presentations by the boards, the architecture firm, and the financial consultants were impressive and showed how much thought, work, and planning had already gone into this project.
However, in speaking with many county residents over the last two weeks about the proposed project, almost none of them were aware that the meeting had taken place, and that the long-awaited high school rebuild was one step closer to reality. Out of sheer curiosity, I asked at least a dozen people what they thought the price tag would be for the project. Not one person guessed higher than $40 million. Most pegged the cost at around $15-20 million. All of them were shocked at the actual proposed cost.
Given the massive financial commitment this project will require, the Board should take additional steps to ensure full visibility into the planning stages and encourage public involvement to the extent practical. This is by far the largest project the County has undertaken in recent memory, or maybe ever. Our elected officials should make sure that the residents who will bear the cost and support the school for generations to come are adequately represented.
I have been thinking about this project somewhat obsessively since the joint meeting. During that time, some thoughts and questions crystallized in my mind.
First, I think it is incumbent upon the Board of Commissioners to fully explore alternative location options for the school and to publish all locations that have been considered and rejected (along with the reason for the rejection). It was clearly stated at the joint meeting that a 50-acre campus would be ideal for the school. Building on a new site would carry the obvious advantage of allowing the FHS academic year and sports seasons to be uninterrupted while the new high school is constructed.
At the Board of Commissioners meeting held on August 9, a Macon resident asked the Board about other properties that had been considered for the school. The answer provided by the Board was vague, to say the least. The Board indicated that the studies for alternative locations had been conducted ten years ago, and they either could not recall which locations were involved or were not able to disclose the locations.
It is hard to believe that with all the open land, farmland, existing school campuses, and property already owned by the County, an appropriate new site cannot be located. I, for one, would like to understand why the area around Macon County Middle School was rejected. The County already owns a large contiguous piece of land at that location. It seems that this would be an ideal spot to consolidate educational facilities.
At that August 9 meeting, current FHS principal Michael Noe responded in part to the location discussion by voicing his opposition to moving the school and stating that the high school “has to be in that location” (the current location). He cited history, nostalgia, and graduates coming back to visit as reasons not to consider alternative sites. I am a relatively recent transplant to Macon County and did not attend FHS, but if this logic is any part of the decision, it seems that the question should be asked in a larger sense to the public to truly understand what the community wants.
If an alternative location cannot be found, the Board should explore options to expand the existing footprint of the school prior to beginning the project. If this is truly a 50-year plan, then I would encourage some outside-the-box thinking to make the new high school facility as good as it can be for the students and the community. There are properties adjacent to the existing school grounds that could be acquired to provide for additional space on campus. Even 6 additional acres would provide room to make the campus a truly spectacular place for our children to learn and develop.
Regardless of the history of this project, the Board should make every effort to publicize the process and its progress in order to gain the full support of the community.
More importantly, everyone who cares about Franklin High School should make their voices heard NOW while the Board is still relatively early in the planning stages. Write to the Board of Commissioners. Show up at the monthly Board meetings. Get involved in the process.
Once the final plan is in place, I hope that the people of Macon County will fully support this much-needed improvement to our children’s education system. This is the rare occasion where the people can be directly involved in a government decision. Let’s not waste that opportunity.
*This editorial was submitted by Ryan Bilbrey of Otto.