The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners unanimously gave a nod of approval for the county school system to create a new high school that will focus on science, technology, engineering and math.
Called a STEM school for the subjects it will specialize in, the board approved $5.5 million in lottery and sales tax funding for renovations to its planned site at 175 Bingham Road in Emma. State law dictates that the money must be used for public school capital improvements.
A nearby area has been designated by the state as an inactive hazardous site, allegedly due to contamination from the former Square D electronic components plant. And several citizens voiced concerns at the commissioners Feb. 19 meeting that contaminants could pose a threat to students at the school.
However, Buncombe County Schools Superintendent Dr. Tony Baldwin told the commissioners that the school system had conducted more tests than were required by the state Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources and found nothing that would pose hazards to students. The facility is serviced by Asheville city water and no soil will be moved for the renovations, he noted.
"I don't think any citizen in Buncombe County could provide any more diligence than this Buncombe County School Board has," he said. "My number one mission is to do what's right for kids. The right thing is to move on with this."
Noting that the project had already been delayed for a year in order to conduct the testing, he added: "We cannot afford to hold …. students hostage for one more year."
The building to be renovated for the school currently houses the county schools' central office and the wing of the building that would be used for the school formerly functioned as its Career Education Center space.
The school will emphasize its core subjects as well as real-world experience such as internships. The school system is planning to partner with A-B Tech to offer students college credit for some courses, said Baldwin. He added that the school's focus will be on preparing students for the jobs of the future, noting that work opportunities in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math are growing 60 percent faster than other fields.
Scheduled to open Aug. 1, 2014, the school will have a freshman class of 80–100 students. Plans call for additional students to be added each year until it reaches a full capacity of 300–400 students.
Board members praised the plan, with Commissioner Ellen Frost maintaining that "this project will help students find jobs." Likewise, Commissioner David King added: "I'm very excited about the prospects of it."
In other business, the board approved a rezoning request to allow commercial development on 11.7 acres of land at 374 Old County Home Road in Leicester. Commissioner Mike Fryar cast the lone vote against the move, saying he wanted the issue postponed until he had a chance to visit the property and look into allegations from a neighboring land owner who told the board that the property lines were incorrect.