Photo by Max Cooper
Asheville City School officials pitched the Buncombe County commissioners on building two new schools March 5, but no decision was made on funding the roughly $65.8 million request.
Over the course of two hours, the board of commissioners heard from a variety of school officials, teachers and parents who urged them to finance new homes for Isaac Dickson Elementary and Asheville Middle schools. The commissioners’ chambers were packed with roughly 100 supporters. The current facilities suffer from a long list of problems, including leaky roofs and windows, unwieldy corridors, mold, insufficient storage, inadequate lighting and antiquated heating and cooling systems, they said.
Dickson, built in 1953, and AMS, built in 1965, served as African American junior and high schools, respectively. Since then, the downtown buildings have undergone renovations, but “there’s only so much money you can put into a facility until you start throwing good money after bad,” said Al Whitesides, vice chair of the Asheville City School Board. “And I think we’ve hit that point.”
State law charges county governments with funding the capital needs of local public schools. And none of the commissioners argued that there wasn’t a need to replace the aging buildings. However, some did raise questions about design features such as solar panels and the overall price tag — estimated at $18.9 million for Dickson and $46.9 million for Asheville Middle.
Noting that Buncombe County completed two intermediate schools last year for roughly $18.5 million each, Commissioner David King said he didn’t think it was fair that “we’re looking at premium schools here, when we asked the county to look at budget schools.”
However, project architect Chad Roberson countered that the middle school project requires demolition of the old building, would serve about 200 more students, and offer many science, vocational and arts programs the intermediate schools don’t offer.
Like plans for the Dickson building, the two county schools were LEED certified.
In response, King thanked him for the “good answers,” adding: “We just want to make sure we’ve covered all the bases.”
Holly Jones, vice chair of the board of commissioners and a longtime proponent of replacing the schools, maintained that “When you do get in to the apples and apples of it all, [the costs are] right in line.”
The most pointed words on the issue were spoken by attendees during a public-comment period. Jupiter resident Don Yelton referred to the crowd as “people at the trough looking for money.”
“It’s my money, it’s all of our money, and we need to spend it wisely,” he maintained. “And don’t just give it away to people because they line up at the trough.”
That didn’t sit well with Dickson PTO Chair Steve Agan, who called the comments “derogatory.” He told the commissioners: “I’m proud to be here. And your job is to provide for the general welfare. And if building new schools isn’t doing that, than I don’t know what is.”
Meanwhile, plans call for moving Dickson’s 466 students in to Randolph Learning Center in Montford until 2015, when the new building would be completed at the existing site. Some students and teachers from the alternative school, which serves 60 middle school and high school students, told the commissioners they were worried they’d be displaced. Teacher Kimberly Fink Adams told the board that 99 percent of the students live below the poverty level and reside in public housing. “Right now, they don’t feel safe” about the idea of being put into another building, she said.
However, Commissioner Ellen Frost assured them: “I’m going to be asking all the time: What about the students at Randolph?”
Hard to handle
The new middle school would be built on an existing parking lot and a field at the South French Broad Avenue facility. Unlike the Isaac Dickson plan, the nearly 800 middle school students would continue using the old school until the new one’s ready.
In coming weeks, County Manager Wanda Greene will draft a list of various funding options to bring back to the commissioners for consideration, she told commissioners.
A 1983 state law earmarks a percentage of local sales taxes for school construction but sends most of the money to the county. Noting this funding mechanism, King broached an idea: “If the systems were consolidated, these would immediately go up to top of priorities,” he noted. But King’s suggestion spurred little discussion.
Like the other commissioners, Chair David Gantt voiced support for building the new schools, but offered little in the way of financial details. “How we get there, I don’t know. It’s a lot of money, a lot of money,” he said. “But we’re going to get there. We’re going to try to figure out how to handle this.”
For more on this issue, read Xpess’ Feb, 27 cover story, “Building Knowledge: Asheville pushes for new schools”