Despite a few calls for caution, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved spending $1.98 million Aug. 6 to buy land on Sand Hill Road for a new Enka-Candler intermediate school.
Area fifth- and sixth-graders need a new facility, said Dr. Tony Baldwin, superintendent of Buncombe County Schools. The proposed site encompasses 22.17 acres of land near the former BASF plant. "There is no question this school will be needed," he explained, noting that the school system has long called for a new building. Last year, 1,057 students attended Enka Middle School, making it the most crowded middle school west of Charlotte, according to data from the Education First NC School Report Card.
Michelle Pace Wood, a Candler resident and former candidate for commissioner who has long advocated for a new facility, called the overcrowding at Enka Middle School "crisis level." She said, "We have been patiently waiting for this school to be built, [and] the parents out there support it." Wood added, "The longer you wait, the more expensive it will be to build."
But Buncombe County School Board member Lisa Baldwin disagreed, saying, "I sympathize with the overcrowding issues, but I have many concerns. … Just because we have the money doesn't mean we have to spend it." She called for more studies and feedback to determine the proper course forward, and she questioned whether intermediate schools "are the best approach to education."
A number of parents, school officials and county commissioners said they strongly supported the land purchase and new school.
But Candler resident Jerry Rice said he was worried about contamination from the nearby former BASF plant, where nylon was manufactured for decades before closing in 2007. He also expressed concern that pollution in Hominy Creek, which runs along the northeastern border of the site, could harm children at the proposed school.
However, Baldwin assured commissioners of the site’s safety, maintaining, "Every time we buy property, I can assure you that we do a very thorough environmental assessment."
Tim Fierle, director of facility services for Buncombe County Schools, reported that the school system has conducted extensive studies over the last few months, including environmental assessments, traffic engineering studies, property appraisals and site alternatives. These studies indicated that there are no causes for concern, he said, concluding, "My recommendation is this is the most suitable site for a new intermediate school. … This is an excellent site."
Buncombe Commissioner Joe Belcher, who lives in Enka and represents the district, offered school representatives strong support. "I'll tell you how confident I am that you've done your due diligence: My grandson is going to go to that school,” he declared. “It's an amazing site for a school. … This is a historic day for me."
The $1.98 million is coming from a special sales tax, mandated by state law, that must be used for school capital construction and improvements. Total construction of the school is estimated to cost roughly $22 million.