Financial aid: Commissioners consider new Asheville schools

Getting in line: Asheville Middle School Principal Cynthia Sellinger and Isaac Dickson Principal Brad Johnson lined up to make the case for funding new buildings. photo by Max Cooper

Asheville wants to replace two schools, but Buncombe County commissioners question the $65.8 million price tag and say they don’t know where the money will come from.

During two hours of presentations and hearings March 5, commissioners heard from several of the 100 or so school officials, teachers and parents who packed the room and urged them to finance new homes for Isaac Dickson Elementary and Asheville Middle School. The current facilities have leaky roofs and windows, labyrinthine corridors, mold, insufficient storage, inadequate lighting, antiquated heating-and-cooling systems and a host of other problems, they said.

Under North Carolina law, county governments fund the capital needs of local public schools. The Buncombe County School system has built 15 new ones over the last 30 years, compared to one in the city system.

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."

No commissioners argued that new schools weren’t needed.

Noting that last year Buncombe County completed two intermediate schools — Koontz and Eblen — 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."

Project architect Chad Roberson explained that the AMS project requires demolition of the old building, would serve about 200 more students than Koontz and Eblen, and will offer many science, vocational and arts programs these county schools don't offer.

King thanked him for "good answers," saying, "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, "When you do get in to the apples and apples of it all, [the costs are] right in line" with modern building norms and the per-square-foot costs of Koontz and Eblen, when adjusted for inflation.

Logistics and criticism

During the public-comment period, Jupiter resident Don Yelton stirred the crowd when he motioned toward everyone in the room and called them "people at the trough looking for money.” The former county staffer and commissioner candidate said, “It's my money, it's all of our money, and we need to spend it wisely. … And don't just give it away to people because they line up at the trough."

Dickson PTO Chair Steve Agan called Yelton’s comments "derogatory" and told 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, then I don't know what is."

Project logistics also stirred debate. If construction starts this summer, the new elementary would open August 2015, its 466 students relocated in the meantime to Montford’s Randolph Learning Center, which serves 60 middle and high school students.

Randolph teacher Kimberly Fink Adams said that 99 percent of the school’s 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 to make room for the Dickson students, she said.

Commissioner Ellen Frost assured her, "I'm going to be asking all the time: What about the students at Randolph?”

The new middle school would be built on an existing parking lot and a field at the South French Broad Avenue facility, so its nearly 800 students could use the old facility until the new one's ready.

What’s next

In coming weeks, County Manager Wanda Greene will draft a list of various funding options to bring back to the commissioners for review.

A 1983 state law earmarks a percentage of local sales taxes for school construction but sends most of the money to the county. With an eye on this funding mechanism, King broached an idea that pops up occasionally: "If the systems were consolidated, these would immediately go up to top of priorities." But his suggestion spurred little discussion.

Like his fellow commissioners, Chair David Gantt voiced support for building the new schools but offered few 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, see the Feb. 27 cover story “Building Knowledge: Asheville Pushes for New Schools” (available online at

— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at

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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