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$10 million in capital improvements approved for Macon Schools

Two of the four capital improvement projects are slated for Highlands School. MCS photo Two of the four capital improvement projects are slated for Highlands School. MCS photo

Macon County Commissioners approved a slew of capital improvement projects totaling almost $10 million during a joint meeting with the board of education Oct. 18. However, all members were not in agreement about approving the spending.

“I appreciate all the civil discourse,” said Commission Chairman Jim Tate. “We have a very healthy board right now; we don’t all agree, but we agree to respect each other and respect each other’s opinions.”

The first, a bid acceptance for the Macon Middle School locker room was identified in the capital improvement plan for completion in fiscal year 2023. The county appropriated funding in its budget in the amount of $2,640,000 and received bids for the project in September that have been reviewed by the liaison committee which works between the county commission and school board. 

Three bids were received and after review, the lowest responsible bidder was determined to be Carolina Specialties Construction at a cost of $2,519,250. The motion to award the bid and authorize the county manager to enter into contract with Carolina Specialties Construction passed unanimously. Superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin noted that the company has done work at Highlands School previously and the district had no complaints with the company’s work. 

The second project concerned the Macon Middle School track. While it had not been identified in the capital improvement plan for the county, it was identified in the fiscal year 2023 capital outlay request from the school system. During the most recent liaison committee meeting, the group discussed the numerous failed attempts to repair the Franklin High School track that has inhibited the school system from hosting track meets. Potential construction at FHS will further inhibit use of the track. The committee received a quote for $657,070 in 2021 from Competition Athletic Services. 

“The discussions concerning the track situation have been ongoing for years,” said Board of Education Chairman Jim Breedlove. “There have been discussions concerning how to finance this, concerning grant money and the school system agreeing to use the contingency left over from Macon Middle. We also have received a grant for over $100,00 that we will designate to go into this project. So we think it’s a vital project and that’s why we put it on out capital outlay request.”

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Contingency funds from Macon Middle School, of which about $600,000 remain, must be used in some form at Macon Middle. The track is regulation size, but needs the asphalt, gravel base and surface to be replaced. The school system will need to put out a request for bids. 

“I consider this somewhat of an emergency for Macon County,” said Tate. “They’re already missing track season this year because we can’t do it there. If we don’t start that ball rolling right now, they’re going to miss next season too. Imagine Franklin football field — what would happen if you missed half of this season because the field is in deplorable condition? This community would go berserk, and I think it needs to be a level playing field for all of our sports.”

The motion to put the Macon Middle School track project out for bid passed 4-1, with commissioner Paul Higdon dissenting. 

The third project under consideration was the Highlands School soccer field. The project was not outlined in the county’s capital improvement plan or the school system’s capital outlay request. During a September school board meeting both the principal of Highlands School and the soccer coach spoke to the hazardous conditions at the school. The pair also presented a quote for $850,000 they had received earlier in the year.  

The liaison committee also discussed the project at its latest meeting. The primary concern for the field is poor runoff and drainage causing a flooded field when it rains and a frozen field during most of the colder months. The field needs resurfacing, ideally with AstroTurf so that it can be used year-round. 

“This has not been included in our capital outlay projects prior to this, but bluntly we were not aware of the shape that this field apparently has descended into,” said Breedlove. “The board of education fully supports moving forward and trying to accommodate the request for the soccer field at Highlands School.”

“If we do not address this project right now, we’re not just missing this season, we’re missing three more seasons,” said school board member Hillary Wilkes. “So if next summer this doesn’t get done, then that means the entire school year for the next two seasons for boys and girls soccer we won’t have that field. And it’s also used daily by our P.E. teachers as well.”

Commissioner Paul Higdon referred to the commission’s decision on the projects as a “shopping spree.”

“We’ve got three items here not identified on the capital improvement plan, which is Macon Middle School Track, Highlands soccer field and the Highlands pre-K,” said Higdon. “None of those items were mentioned six months ago. And we’re looking at a $10 million expenditure for all of them. Is it prudent for us to act out of budget, out of capital improvement plans just to spend $10 million? These are all worthy projects, but the process that we’re handling these, we’ve got a sewer plant that’s malfunctioning, we’ve got a geothermal issue, is there not a reason to prioritize our spending? There is a limit to what we can do, and to just sit here and casually commit $10 million tonight.”

A motion to put the Highlands soccer field project out to bid passed four to one with Higdon dissenting. 

The fourth project involved an architect recommendation for the Highlands pre-K project, which was included in the school’s capital outlay request. The board of commissioners previously authorized a request for qualification for the project in May of this year, the liaison committee met to review the responses and recommended LS3P to move forward with the project. The scope of work involves the pre-K expansion and renovations to Highlands Middle School.  

The combined project cost is estimated at $5.5 million. That includes the pre-K as well as building the addition to the middle school to account for the displaced classrooms with the involvement of the pre-K, as well as renovation to a very old CTE section, repurposing some interior hallways and improvements to the media center. 

“If we are able to apply for and receive that renovation repair fund grant, that would reduce that by another $500,000,” said Baldwin. 

The additional space would account for two 18-student classrooms for a total of 36 students. According to Wilkes, at Highlands Community Childcare Development Center there are over 60 children on the waitlist. Another childcare center in Highlands has 50 on the waitlist. 

“If we can absorb 36 with an in-house pre-K at Highlands, that opens up those daycare facilities of varying ages,” said Wilkes. 

Commissioner Josh Young and Higdon again questioned the process for approval of a project of this type. 

“I don’t dispute the fact that this is needed, but I feel like the process warrants respect and I feel like it needs to be through the capital improvement plan,” Young said. “I understand it’s on there now but it wasn’t on there in March.”

Commissioner Higdon said that the boards needed to do better planning so projects like this were hashed out during the budget season. 

While pre-K programs are not a required offering of public schools, it is a program they can offer and one that is shown to improve the ability of students later in their K-12 careers. 

“We’re looking at the very earliest, if we start tonight, doing what we can, the first kids in the pre-K classroom will get there in August of 2024,” said Wilkes. “That’s almost two years from now. If we wait on this, we’re already so behind.”

Following lengthy discussion, the motion to enter into contract negotiations with LS3P for the Highlands pre-K project and reassess the scope of the project if the repair and renovation application fund is approved for Highlands middle School was approved three to two with Higdon and Young voting against. The board also approved the motion to submit an application for the repair and renovation fund grant for Highlands Middle School four to one, with Higdon voting against. 

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