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Highlanders object to canceling school expansion 

The Macon County Commission recently voted to cancel the Highlands School expansion project. File photo The Macon County Commission recently voted to cancel the Highlands School expansion project. File photo

Several Highlands residents converged on a recent Macon County commissioners meeting to voice their opposition to the county commission cancelling a project that would have expanded Highlands School.

“If we could possibly look at funding our Highlands expansion, it would be so appreciated. We really would like to have it back,” said Highlands resident and retired educator Freda Bennet. 

The Highlands School project, sometimes referred to as the Highlands pre-K project, involves renovating high school classrooms so they can function as pre-K classrooms, renovating and expanding the media center and building additional high school classrooms to make up for those converted into pre-K rooms. The project is estimated at around $4.8 million. 

Highlands School currently has no preschool classrooms. The county serves about 90 preschool students annually, though it has around 300 students entering kindergarten each year. According to school board member Hilary Wilkes, private early childhood care and education centers in Highlands have years-long waiting lists. 

Following a meeting of the liaison committee between the school board and county commission in February, the top five capital outlay priorities for Macon County Schools, as announced during the Feb. 21 county commission meeting, were the Macon Middle vent pipes, the wastewater treatment plant at Nantahala, the Franklin High School project, the Highlands Middle School renovation project and the Macon Middle School track replacement. 

“As part of that, in acknowledging these priorities, we must also acknowledge that the Highlands pre-K did not make that priority list. With that being said, it will require us to take action to terminate that contract for architectural services at the Highlands pre-K,” said County Manager Derek Rolland during the Feb. 21 meeting. “The contract amount, as you’ll recall, was for $329,255. We’ve spent $35,262. We do have a deliverable in the form of a schematic design in case we decide to move forward in the future with that project, we will have those drawings.”

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During that meeting School Board Chairman Jim Breedlove noted that while, per the county commission’s request, the school board prioritized its lengthy list of capital needs to create a top five, two of the items on that list were emergency items — the vent pipes at Macon Middle and the wastewater treatment plant at Nantahala. 

“We feel very strongly that the high school is our top priority; I think we’ve made that very clear,” said Breedlove. “However, we do not plan on removing the Highlands project from our capital outlay request. We think it’s a very important project, I think it provides a very needed service to the town of Highlands. It was behind the high school and a couple others, but by no means have we let up. We will continue to pursue the request.”

“I think it would be a shame to take funding away from a project that’s already been budgeted for it,” said school board member Hilary Wilkes at the Feb. 21 commissioner meeting. “I think it would show a lack of investment in Highlands from this board to do so.”

The motion to terminate the contract for architectural services passed unanimously. 

While the Highlands project may not have made the top five list requested by the county commission, school board members were clear that they still wanted to see the project funded. 

It is important to note that while commissioners asked for a list of the top five most-needed capital projects, the first two items on the list are considered emergencies — if either the vent pipes or the wastewater treatment plant were to fail, school could not be in session. Then there is the Franklin High School project. The next two items on the list, Highlands Middle School renovations and Macon Middle Track replacement, are already funded — Highlands Middle School through the North Carolina Repair and Renovation Fund available through the North Carolina Education Lottery with no local money needed, and the Macon Middle School track with money that has already been allocated to the middle school during its renovation, in addition to $109,000 from the general assembly that can only be used for athletic facilities

Part of the reason the school board felt it needed to include these items on the top five priority list is because there were already funding sources available to make the projects happen. 

This creation of a top-five priority list created some confusion among members of the public who came before the county commission March 14 to voice opposition to the county’s decision to terminate the contract for architectural services for the Highlands expansion project, thereby halting current work. These residents opined that the county should continue to fund the Highlands expansion project even if it is not listed in the top five priority list. 

Highlands resident and business owner Jerry Moore spoke in public comment and argued that the request from the county commission for five projects from the school board was an arbitrary number and that instead, the commission should look at how much it can afford to give the school system for capital projects. 

“I understand the school board gave you a list of priorities, the projects that need to get done, but when I watched that meeting online, I didn’t see discussion of, can we go beyond those five priorities, can we have seven, can we have eight, what can we afford? There was no discussion on what we could afford,” said Moore. 

“I think each of you told me, you’re so for pre-K, but you don’t want the county to have to finance it,” said Bennett during public comment. “I get that. But sometimes state legislators just will not do what they should do and sometimes we just have to say ‘we’ll pick up that mantle and we’ll do it, one at a time.’”

Bennett taught for 34 years, most of those in Highlands. 

Commissioner John Shearl spoke out during the public comment session to address Bennett’s comments. 

“It’s not the board of commissioners’ responsibility to tell the school system what is needed,” said Shearl. 

He read to Bennett from a newspaper clipping that he said presented false information. He went on to explain to Bennett that, as he understood it, the school board had changed their list of top five priorities that the county commission requested and moved the Highlands project off that list. 

“It seems so very strange to me that I would have to argue or defend a position from the person that is elected to represent my district,” Bennett responded. 

Several other Highlands residents spoke to the dire need of pre-K services at Highlands School and against canceling the project, including the executive director of the Literacy and Learning Center in Highlands, Bonnie Potts. She said that in her work she sees the direct effects of a lack of preschool access for students in Highlands. 

A member of the Advancing Highlands Education Committee also spoke out and noted that the group has been working towards expansion for two years. 

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