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Swain schools asks county to cover capital needs

fr schoolSwain County schools are requesting an additional $250,000 from the county commissioners to cover some much-needed building maintenance projects at all four schools.

Amanda Smith, finance director for Swain County Schools, said the system spends between $500,000 to $600,000 a year on building maintenance projects. The county typically only funds about $160,000 of that cost each year while the remaining funds come from the schools’ fund balance. Last year, the fund balance contained about $4.7 million. 

This year the school board is asking for the usual $750,000 for operations and $410,000 for capital projects.

“Because other budgets — particularly the state and federal budgets — are being cut, we’ve asked the county to pick that up cost so we could use fund balance money in others areas,” Smith said. 

Gerry McKinley, chairman of the Swain County Board of Education, said upgrades were a necessity for the county’s aging school buildings. While the school system is working on securing funding to begin major renovations and expansions at all of its schools, he said there is still work to be done in the interim. 

Water pumps and heating and air units have to be replaced, classrooms need new carpeting, light fixtures need to be upgraded and walls need a new coat of paint. 

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“We have a lot of capital needs,” McKinley said. “Our schools are 20 years old.”

He isn’t sure whether the commissioners will be able to fund all of those needs this year, but he said they are willing to work with the school system to create a long-range plan to get it accomplished. A committee is being formed with two members from each board to tour the facilities and come up with a plan. 

Smith said the biggest challenge during this year’s budget process was not knowing how much funding would come from the state. In the past, the state sends out a planning allotment to school systems in April. While the planning allotment numbers are just an estimate, it at least helps local systems have some idea where to start. Smith said the state decided to no longer send those estimates and the school system has to wait until July to know how much funding it will receive from the state. 

“We really don’t know what to do or even think about doing for next year,” she said. “It’s a shot in the dark.”

McKinley said the board of education has only hired a bare minimum staff for the fall until the final numbers are submitted in July. Either way he expects additional cuts. The school system has lost some teaching and teaching assistant positions but so far it’s been through attrition. 

“We haven’t had to lay anyone off yet,” he said. 


Growing population

In addition to the county and state funding, Swain County also received impact aid from the federal government, which is estimated to be about $64,000 this year. The aid provides per capita funding for Swain County schools students who live on federal land, including the national park and forest and the Qualla Boundary. 

While many counties have seen a steady decline in student population since the recession, Swain has seen a steady increase over the past few years that is just now leveling off, according to Smith.

McKinley said the increase might be attributed to families moving closer to Swain County to take jobs at the casino in Cherokee. With Harrah’s getting closer to opening a casino in Murphy, it may result in another uptick in student numbers. 

Smith said the projected enrollment for 2015-16 is 2,189 compared to last year’s enrollment of 1,985. 

McKinley said the growth has strained the county’s aging school buildings, especially at the high school. 

“At one time we did have plans for new high school, but that’s probably not going to happen — you’re looking at a $50 million project and a for small rural community that’s tough,” he said. 

The board of education recently completed a schools master plan that outlines renovations and expansions for East and West elementary as well as the middle and high school. It’s a long-term plan, but work will begin this summer to add eight more classrooms onto East Elementary. 

Swain County commissioners approved applying for $3.2 million in interest-free financing for the East Elementary project. 


Swain County Schools requests from the county for 2015-16

$750,000 for operations

$410,000 in capital outlay 

Capital outlay requests

High school

• Green house – natural gas piping -  $15,000

• Gym water heater convert to gas - $69,000

• Little theater carpet - $12,662

• Little theater lighting upgrade - $46,000

• Paint - $6,000

• Cafeteria snack station - $7,000

• Football field visitor dressing room gas water heater - $17,000

Middle school

• Carpet in 4 rooms - $18,100

• Gym bleachers - $60,000

• Lighting project - $22,000


• Playground shade - $20,000

East Elementary

• Hall base replacement - $7,000

• Stair treads - $12,000

• Water pump replacement - $18,000

West Elementary

• Auditorium carpet - $23,800

• Hall base replacement - $7,400

• Stair treads - $12,000

• Tile existing classrooms - $33,000

• Water pump replacement - $18,000

Total capital needs - $474,922


The nuts and bolts of Swain schools’ master plan

Swain Middle School master plan

Phase 1 — Construction budget based on 2014 costs; temporarily relocate art, band and library to other spaces in existing school or into modular building; permanently relocate board of education offices; and demolish original stone building - $250-$350,000

• Construct new 2 story, 22 classroom and media center addition - $5 million to $5.4 million

• After addition is complete, move band and art into existing town story modular 

Phase 2 — Move classrooms into new phase 1 building; demolish old two-story classroom building - $175,000-$200,000

• Construct new gym administration secure entry and art classroom

Phase 3 — Demolish old gym - $125,000-$150,000

• Construct new cafeteria, kitchen, band, chorus and locker/weight room - $3.4 to $3.6 million

• Repurpose old cafeteria building for open multipurpose space - $420,000-$560,000

TOTAL - $12.5 to $13.5 million

Swain County High School master plan

Phase 1 – STEM classrooms, guidance suite, admin/entry, open media center - $3 to $3.7 million

Phase 2 — Kitchen and dining area - $900,000 to $1.2 million

Phase 3 — Additional classrooms, aux. gym, multipurpose space - $6.9 to $7.5 million; new gym lobby and toilets addition - $495,000-$594,000


• New softball field - $780,000 to $968,500

• New football practice and track facility $1.9 to $2.2 million

• 80 new parking spots $95,000 to $125,000

TOTAL - $14.2 to $16.4 million 

(Prepared by Grant Tharp, Cope Architecture)

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