Two new: Commissioners take first steps to replace aging schools

A capital idea: Asheville City Schools officials Allen Johnson, Al Whitesides and Gene Bell (left to right) thank the commissioners for beginning the process of replacing Asheville Middle School and Isaac Dickson Elementary. photo by Max Cooper
A capital idea: Asheville City Schools officials Allen Johnson, Al Whitesides and Gene Bell (left to right) thank the commissioners for beginning the process of replacing Asheville Middle School and Isaac Dickson Elementary. photo by Max Cooper

Buncombe County Board of Commissioners March 20, 2012 meeting

  • Environmentalists urge joining billboard lawsuit
  • March 23 proclaimed Women Veterans History Day

Two new school buildings are in the works for Asheville. At their March 20 meeting, the Buncombe County commissioners unanimously approved taking the first steps toward replacing the aging Asheville Middle School and Isaac Dickson Elementary, authorizing $2 million for studies and architectural planning.

The county will borrow the initial investment from its School Capital Commission Fund, which consists of lottery revenue and other state education moneys.

County Manager Wanda Greene said the new middle school alone could cost upward of $30 million to $35 million, cautioning, "Until the planning's done, we don't have any idea." The planning process will take 12 to 18 months, she reported. At that time, county officials will consider all their funding options, including a bond issue or a property-tax increase, noted Greene.

"We need to know how much it'll cost, then decide how we're going to try to pay for it," she said.

The new facilities would be built at the current sites: 197 S. French Broad Ave. (Asheville Middle) and 125 Hill St. (Isaac Dickson).

During the commissioners’ Feb. 7 retreat, city school officials had urged them to make capital improvements at the two schools a top priority, explaining that the current buildings suffer from leaking roofs, heating/cooling problems, plumbing troubles and other issues. And at the March 20 meeting, school officials said they've been waging a fierce behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign to rally financial support.

"I want to thank each of you for visiting our schools and seeing some of the needs we have. I think seeing is believing," noted Asheville City Schools Superintendent Allen Johnson.

And Gene Bell, who chairs the city school board, thanked Greene for meeting repeatedly with school officials to discuss the issue.

"It's been a very, very difficult process to try to get people to understand our needs," he said. "We're obviously elated. … We want our kids in the city to have adequate facilities and continue to make sure our city and county school systems are the best in the state."

Steve Dykes, vice president of the Asheville City Schools Foundation, added: "This will be very meaningful to our children going forward, and that's what it's all about. Over the next few months, we want to keep an open dialogue with you so we can determine the best course of action."

No one spoke against the measure during the public hearing. The only comment on the issue came from Enka resident Jerry Rice, who said he supports the improvements but wishes the commissioners had acted before the buildings were in such poor repair.

"My concern would be, why have we waited so long to get to this place? … Let's look at these things on the front end, not the rear end, because it seems like it's always in election years that these kinds of things come up, and everyone wants to get on the bandwagon," Rice maintained. "There's lots of things that need to be taken care of before election years."

The commissioners mostly stayed silent during the proceedings, with only board Chair David Gantt offering a few thoughts before the vote.

"We've got a moral obligation to provide for these kids," he said. "It's the best investment we can make, and this board wants to do it. This is the first step."

Residents decry billboard rules

During the meeting's public-comment period, the commissioners got an earful from local environmental leaders urging the county to support legal action against new state rules allowing increased clear-cutting near billboards.

The rules, which overrule any local ordinances, (see “Perfectly Clear,” Feb. 29 Xpress) increase the potential cutting zone from 250 feet to as much as 380 feet along interstate highways and state roads.

Scenic North Carolina, an environmental group founded by the late Julian Price of Asheville, filed a complaint in Wake County Superior Court Feb. 29, seeking a restraining order. Since then, the group has been asking municipalities across the state for support.

The city of Asheville is considering its legal options; several City Council members have voiced support for the group’s efforts.

Echoing the concerns of many of the environmentalists present, Ken Brame of the local Sierra Club chapter urged the commissioners to join with the city in opposing the rules.

"In Western North Carolina, we're very dependent on things like tourism, businesses moving in, people moving here. And one of the advantages we have is the beautiful scenery and mountains and trees we have," he pointed out. "The last thing we need is for those areas to be clear-cut. … We've got a big stake in this issue."

The commissioners were tightlipped before clearing the room to go into closed session. Afterward, County Attorney Michael Frue told Xpress that the county, too, is exploring its legal options but that no decision had been made.

Other business

In other action, the commissioners:
• Heard a report from the Land Conservation Advisory Board. Since 2004, the amount of land protected from development has grown from roughly 12 percent to about 14 percent of the county’s total area, according to the report. Thousands of acres are under conservation easements, in addition to the lands protected by national forest and drinking-water-watershed designations.
• Voted 5-0 to enter into an interlocal agreement with A-B Tech to administer the sales-tax revenue voters approved for capital improvements last fall.
• Voted 5–0 to declare March 23 "Women Veterans History Day." The local VA Medical Center currently serves more than 1,600 female veterans, hospital officials said.

— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at jfrankel@mountainx.com.

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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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