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Macon leaders sign agreement on high school

Plans for the new Franklin High School have been designed on the same site as the school currently stands. LS3P photo Plans for the new Franklin High School have been designed on the same site as the school currently stands. LS3P photo

The Macon County Commission unanimously approved a memorandum of understanding with the Macon County School Board this month concerning the new Franklin High School.

While some commissioners are hesitant about the project, the possible infusion of grant money could bring a majority on board. 

“This is a commitment to grant funds, if our county were to receive them,” said Commissioner Josh Young.

Commissioner Young brought the memorandum of understanding before the county commission during its June 13 meeting. The MOU is with the Macon County Board of Education related to the Franklin High School Project. It stipulates the county’s intent to use any funds received through the Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund for the new high school Project. It ensures elected representatives in the North Carolina General Assembly that Macon County would use grant funds for the new high school.

“What this is, is more or less an agreement that says that if we get the $60 million, that we’ll use it towards construction of a new Franklin High School,” said Young. “It can’t be altered, it can’t go towards other capital needs in the county, it has to go towards Franklin High School.”

The Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund was established to assist counties with their critical public school building capital needs. Grants are funded with revenue from the North Carolina Education Lottery. Grant funds are available to eligible counties for construction of new school buildings and additions, repairs and renovations of existing school facilities.

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The school board previously approved the MOU.

“It’s very important that these boards agree to move on with the Franklin High School Project,” said Commissioner Gary Shields. “And also, we feel this agreement will be an asset to our grant proposal that we hope we get in the form of $50 or $60 million. We want to do everything we can for the evaluators to understand that both boards are in sync with this proposal.” 

During the June meeting when the MOU came before commissioners, John Shearl asked whether this agreement would bind the county to the current site where Franklin High School stands and where LS3P has preliminary designs for a new high school, football stadium and track.

“I’m still having a terrible time thinking that we’re going to tear down seven perfectly sound structures for this new school project,” said Shearl. “I’m not saying that we don’t need a new school.” 

Shearl expressed concern about committing to the project when plans for the new school have not been finalized.

“That’s the problem I have,” said Shearl. “If we’re going to commit to something — and yes, absolutely the grant is critical to the needs to build a new Franklin High School — but we don’t have finalized plans yet.”

“No disrespect, but the seven ‘good’ buildings you’re talking about are terrible, the campus is not safe as it is now,” said Shields. “Also, for our ADA students, all seven buildings are in need of repair and upgrading.”

Shields noted that LS3P recommended construction of a new school over renovation of the existing buildings for several reasons — even with full renovations, a campus made up of so many separate parts, each with their own entrances and exits, is inherently less safe for students and staff in the case of an intruder; the number of buildings also creates ADA accessibility issues that are compounded by the differing levels on which the buildings are situated; and several buildings have different plumbing, electrical and even emergency alarm systems that would need to be consolidated.

LS3P found early on in the design process that a full renovation of Franklin High School’s campus would fall short by 89,000 square feet for the target space needed for a 1,200-student school.

In addition to questioning whether repairs could work instead of a brand-new school, Commissioner Shearl questioned whether the current location was the best option for the school. Shields, previously principal at Franklin High School, said that during his time on the board of education, board members surveyed the county for possible alternate locations and found the current site to be the best option.

“If we get the $60 million grant, we have $42 million in fund balance. We could allocate $20-$22 million right away. That school is projected to come in $90 and $100 million,” said Young. “There’s been a lot of thought put into this over the years, it’s more or less a compromise, the infrastructure is already in place, the traffic count is already accounted for and won’t change. That’s why I do support this, that’s why I’ve been a part of this the whole time.”

Commissioner Shields also brought up the importance of a quality school for the economic growth of Macon County.

“The first thing professional people want to do when they come into town, they want to see your schools,” said Shields. “This is our chance, people.”

Chairman Paul Higdon said that he is not a proponent of the new school.

“All our schools are non-ADA compliant. A lot of those buildings are in need of work,” said Higdon. “If we’re tearing down buildings because they’re 70 years old, we got a bunch of buildings in the county to tear down, we can’t use that as our sole purpose. ADA compliance can be accomplished for a whole lot less than $100 million. If they’ll send us $60 million of taxpayer money back to us, this isn’t free money, if they’ll send it back to us, you’ve got my attention on a new school. I’ll concede to that, ‘OK let’s do the school.’”

“We need a new high school, bottom line,” said Commissioner Danny Antoine.

The board approved the MOU unanimously. The agreement does not bind commissioners to following through with the high school project; rather, it binds them to use any grant funds received through the Needs-Based School Capital Fund on the high school project only.

During the same June meeting, the board also approved an interlocal agreement with the Macon County Board of Education concerning use of the Higdon property. This is a parcel of land the county purchased across the road from Franklin High School for use by the school system. The tentative plan is to use the property for Career and Technical Education programs.

The agreement stipulates that upon closing of the county’s purchase of the Higdon property, the parties will enter into a lease agreement in which the county will permit the board of education to use the entire property, the buildings and grounds for educational purposes. It also lays out the intent for the county commission and board of education to work together with LS3P to determine what programming can be provided on the site, as well as the responsibility of the board of education for all maintenance and upkeep of the property. This agreement also passed unanimously. 

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