Price tag for new central office is mighty high
Is it a Taj Mahal or a wise use of tax dollars?
I’m talking about the proposal to spend around $13 million to build a central office for the Haywood County School System that will bring administration, food services, transportation, teacher/staff training facilities and more all under one roof.
The current central office is, in a word, a dump. It’s in part of a 1920s-era building that originally was a hospital, then was shared by the Department of Social Services beside and the school administration. Next, the building will be turned into housing for the elderly, so the school offices have to be out by December 2020.
The prospect of shedding several older buildings to consolidate seems wise. The old Crabtree Elementary School that houses food services and the bus garage atop the old landfill aren’t ideal for the purposes they are being used.
So yes, there’s no doubt this project would certainly fulfill many needs. But the question remains: is $13 million for administration — important as it is — and not for direct educational benefits of students a wise choice? We know Haywood County still doesn’t offer the Advanced Placement courses available to students in other systems, that test scores at some schools are not what they should be, that many parents want more remediation or more AIG offerings.
It’s worth noting that those kinds of recurring costs for more teachers and more classes don’t come from the same pot of money as capital costs for buildings. For the most part, state taxes pay for teachers and classes while county taxes pay for buildings. We know the county picks up the tab for “local” teachers and that state lottery money and sometimes special bond money go toward capital projects, but for the most part it’s state money for teachers, county money for buildings.
Taxpayers in Haywood County know that a couple of the elementary schools — Hazelwood and Junaluska — are full. Several hundred apartment units will be built in these districts over the next couple of years, so more growth is coming. Central Elementary sits idle, which means it could pick up some of the slack, but there will be costs to get it up and going. And no one knows for sure whether Shining Rock — the charter school — will siphon more students or perhaps shed students and send them back to the public schools.
We have middle school gyms and buildings from the 1930s and 1950s. Think about that. The two big high schools have buildings from the 1960s. Maintenance on these buildings is expensive.
Haywood County is growing at a faster rate than the nation and the state. By 2029, its population is expected to reach nearly 69,000 residents. And who knows, if Asheville real estate prices continue to skyrocket, east Haywood County could grow significantly faster than currently projected. Lots of unknowns, the kind of unknowns that bedevil county commissioners and school board members who have to make decisions now based on what they think will happen 10 and 20 years down the road.
So now the county and the school system will get down to brass tacks. County Manager Bryant Morehead and others from the county will begin sitting down with school officials to consider how the project might move forward, how it could be financed and paid for, and perhaps whether something less expensive might serve the same purpose. Could Central Elementary with some upgrades serve the purpose? Could the soon-to-be-empty Kmart be repurposed, just as the old Wal-Mart was repurposed for the consolidated DSS and Health Departments?
Those professionals who will be digging down into the details will come up with the answer to these questions, and perhaps they will convince the skeptics among us of the need. But I’m not hearing much support for tying up $13 million in this project when there are so many other needs and so many unknowns. Just not sure we’ll get the bang for the buck.