After nearly a year of debate, Buncombe County commissioners voted unanimously Jan. 14 to spend $40.5 million to build a new Asheville Middle School. City school officials have long pushed to replace the aging building at 197 S. French Broad Ave, which was built in 1965. They cite a long list of problems with the existing structure, from unsafe corridors and inefficient windows to insufficient classroom space.
State law charges county governments with funding the capital needs of local public schools. And the board’s move authorizes the county to finance the construction costs beginning July 1, which significantly bumps up the project on the county’s capital plan. Until now, commissioners had tentatively planned to delay funding a new AMS building until 2018.
In June, commissioners voted to spend about $20 million on building a new Isaac Dickson Elementary School, which the city school system also had been pushing to replace. At that time, Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene advised commissioners that financing both schools at the same time would be prohibitively expensive.
But Greene expressed no such reservations about funding the middle school project at the Jan. 14 meeting. In fact, she encouraged commissioners to amend the original funding ordinance on the meeting’s agenda to include authorization for the school. “I’m going to ask you to go a step further than what we originally discussed,” she said. “What I’m asking you to do is go ahead and adjust the documents. … We are asking that you do a ‘not to exceed’ on the Asheville Middle School so we can go ahead and get that in our planning and not have to come back to the board. … That way we’ve got everything wrapped up and legal.”
Commissioners obliged without expressing any concerns. After the meeting, Commissioner Mike Fryar, who had questioned the price tag of the building last year, told Xpress, “I’m OK about it. They needed something for a little while.”
The initial proposal unveiled by the city school system last March estimated the new middle school would cost nearly $47 million. Greene praised school officials for working with architects since then to bring the price down by roughly $6.5 million. “A lot of good work’s been done on that project,” she said.
The main change designers made in order to save money was scrapping a large auditorium from the plans, according to Charlie Glazener, executive director for Community Relations at Asheville City Schools. Instead, the new school will include a “gymnatorium” that will be able to accommodate large gatherings when it’s not being used as a gym.
The only member of the public to speak during a Jan. 14 public hearing on the issue was Candler resident Jerry Rice, who said he supported the move.
“We certainly appreciate the support the city schools are getting, because they deserve it. It’s been a long time coming,” he said.
Meanwhile, after the meeting, Commissioner Holly Jones, a longtime advocate of replacing the school, celebrated the move.
“I’m very grateful to my colleagues,” she told Xpress. “The need speaks for itself. It’s time. It’s exciting, it’s great.”
Asheville City Schools interim Superintendent Bobbie Short welcomed the news. “We are delighted to receive the funding, and it’s going to be such a plus for the entire community,” she said.
Glazener added that he thinks putting the funding on a faster track will ultimately save taxpayers money.
“It seems like a really smart thing to do because it saves money on the escalation of construction costs,” he said.
Construction of the new school building will likely begin in July, according to Glazener. It will hopefully be ready for students by August of 2016 “if everything goes according to plan,” he says.
A-B Tech construction
The funding ordinance also finalized $122 million in financing for a range of major capital projects that commissioners had previously approved, including A-B Tech.
The plan finances $73 million for construction at the community college that will eventually be paid back with a quarter-cent sales tax that voters narrowly approved in 2011. That’s down from the $83 million in projects the school originally proposed, Greene reported. The majority of the money will go towards constructing a new Allied Health Building, parking garage and conference center, noted Fryar, who also serves on the school’s board of directors.
Fryar was a fierce critic of the quarter-cent sales tax, but now he says he’s “comfortable” with the construction. “That’s a savings of where we were, but they’re coming out with a great deal overall,” he said.
Commissioner Brownie Newman added: “It’s going to be a great project for the future of A-B Tech. You’re going to get a lot of value.”
The ordinance also authorized the county to refinance some of its previous debt, saving about $4.2 million over the next 20 years due to less expensive interest rates now available, said Donna Clark, county finance director.
Since 2012, Buncombe County has had a AAA credit rating from Standard and Poor, “which allows us to make these substantial investments at a remarkably low borrowing rate,” said Newman.