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County to lease Higdon property to school system

 The Higdon property is located across the street from Franklin High School. Zillow photo The Higdon property is located across the street from Franklin High School. Zillow photo

After Macon County declared its intent to purchase the Higdon property earlier this year, there was some confusion  as to how the property would be used.

 However, the county commission eventually made clear the space was intended for use by the school system. Now the Macon County Board of Education and the county commission are working toward finalizing a lease agreement.

“Basically, we’re in a position now where the county is offering [the Higdon property] to us on a lease,” said School Board Chairman Jim Breedlove. “We would not be owners.”

In June, the county commission approved an interlocal agreement  with the Macon County Board of Education concerning use of the Higdon property. The agreement stipulated that upon closing of the county’s purchase of the Higdon property, the parties would enter into a lease agreement in which the county permits the board of education to use the entire property, buildings and grounds for educational purposes.

Last week, administration from the county and the school system had the opportunity to tour the Higdon property, an 11-acre parcel located across the road from Franklin High School.

“We were able to lay eyes on the inside of the building and walk the grounds, and we had a few of our individuals out there, including Tracy Tallent, who is over our maintenance department,” said Superintendent Josh Lynch. “I asked him to do a quick eyeball assessment of things to consider to help the board make decisions, and he was able to provide a list of items that would need to be investigated and just a little bit more detail so that we can make the most proper decision moving forward.”

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That list contains 17 items the board will need to consider for repair or improvement, like new door openings, egress, exit lighting, ramps, ADA compliance, lead paint and asbestos.

“Things of that nature that are concerning that we just really need to have a better understanding on,” Lynch said.

In the meantime, School Board Attorney John Henning has been working with the county attorney to draft a lease that would convey the property from the county to the school system. As it stands now, it would be a 40-year lease in which the county retains fee ownership, but the school system has full use of the property. All systems and upkeep would be the responsibility of the school board.

“I’ve reviewed it. It’s in a form that we use all the time for this purpose,” Henning told the school board. “It’s basically the same one you have for the middle school, when you gave that property to the county.”

Because school boards cannot legally borrow money, they regularly give school property to county governments when financing school construction or renovation.

“You give them the property and they lease it back to you for the term of the repayment,” said Henning. “Here, there isn’t such a thing yet; we don’t have a plan to finance and build anything on it. But now that they have closed on it and own it, they are offering it to you in the terms of that lease.”

Henning said he approves of the conditions of the lease, but that county commissioners have not yet reviewed or approved the document.  

“I personally am not ready to take any action until we get a chance to talk to Tracy, advance some of those things. His knowledge of what’s here and what we might be getting into are much greater and much more in line with what we need to know than any of us can possibly comprehend right now,” said Breedlove. “It’s refreshing, commissioners have done what they said they were going to try to do, hopefully we can move forward and go from there.”

The school board plans to discuss the property in further detail with Tallent at an upcoming meeting and review the lease after the county commissioners have given it their stamp of approval.

Macon County Schools administrators have expressed their intent to use the Higdon property for expansion of Career and Technical Education opportunities. They envision the property as a student-run enterprise for the CTE program. Part of that would involve using the property as a land lab. Currently, Franklin High School students do not have their own animals that they can work with on campus and are limited to a greenhouse. If the program was moved to the Higdon Property, classes could possibly establish a mini farm and hydroponic garden in addition to the greenhouse.

Additionally, this would allow space for FHS to offer food sciences courses, something it cannot offer now due to limited space. Administration would like to see the kitchen in the Higdon estate turned into a commercial kitchen that FHS can use for culinary courses. The school system also wants to offer expanded options for students to study tourism and hospitality, a large sector of the Macon County economy.

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