At the April 24 meeting of the Macon County School Board, confusion surrounding the county’s intent to purchase the Higdon property came into focus.
Both school board members and County Commissioner and school board liaison Gary Shields seemed unsure of why the county was purchasing the property and whether it would be reserved for use by the school system.
“I was very pleasantly surprised when I found out, at the last meeting it appeared on the agenda, that the commissioners were going to discuss that,” said School Board Chairman Jim Breedlove. “I know Chairman Higdon had not called me, I was caught off guard that they were going to discuss that, but like I said it was a very pleasant surprise.”
Chairman Breedlove asked his fellow board members whether any of them had been notified that the county commission was going to discuss the property and none of the board members indicated they had been made aware.
The Higdon property is an 11-acre parcel across the road from Franklin High School, located at 195 Wayah St. At its April 11 meeting, the county commission approved designating $1.35 million from the county’s fund balance to purchase the property. According to County Manager Derek Roland the agreed upon offer contains a 60-day due diligence period and 30 days to close.
“We’re excited to hear the commissioners have entered into a contract concerning the Higdon property. So we’re hopeful that they’re able to move forward with that contract and finalize it for the county. Once it is finalized for the county, we hope that commissioners will give consideration for that property to be extended to the school system for the use of expansion of the high school campus. I don’t think that that is a confirmed agreement at this point,” said Superintendent Chris Baldwin.
At that April 11 meeting, Commissioner John Shearl said he was in favor of purchasing the Higdon property as long as it could be incorporated into benefitting the Franklin High School Project. Commissioner Danny Antoine said that he was under the impression that the property would be used as part of the high school project.
“I do believe that there was an understanding for us concerning this being part of the high school project. I don’t know where the wires got crossed in that, but I do believe that that was an understanding for that particular property,” said Antoine.
Chairman Higdon said the property would not necessarily be designated for the school system.
“If we do end up gaining approval to buy this property, we’re not going to tag it that it has to be; we’re not going to restrict it because if it doesn’t fit into the plans when we do phase two for education, what do we do with it? There might be some developer who wants to buy this thing and build a motel on it. We don’t know,” said Higdon. “In my personal opinion, this is a good piece of property. Is the best use of it related to education? I do not know.”
This ambiguity of intent for the property created some confusion among school board members. At the April 24 school board meeting, Shields asked the board to approve a plan for the property that he could take back to the county commission. Board members said that they did not feel comfortable putting forth a definite plan for a property they don’t know will be designated for the school system.
“Mr. Shields, with all due respect, I’m not sure that this board can approve anything at this point. The property I understand is under contract, you haven’t acquired it yet,” said Chairman Breedlove. “Until we know what part of the property will be assigned or given for the schools, we really can’t take any action at this time, other than express our willingness that once you acquire the property, we most certainly are interested in being pa rt of that adventure.”
Baldwin asked Commissioner Shields if the property was being purchased for use by the school system. Shields did not say that the property was specifically for the school system and noted that he wanted a plan from MCS to present to commissioners.
“Trying to get in there first,” said Shields.
Chairman Breedlove noted that while the school system had a tentative idea of how it could use the property, once it knew for sure it could use the property, it would inquire with all departments to be sure it used it in the most efficient manner. Therefore, it couldn’t yet approve a definite plan.
School board attorney John Henning recommended the school system enter into a memorandum of understanding with the county commission rather than put forth a specific plan for the property.
Baldwin told the school board that the school system is excited about the possibility of using the property for expansion of its Career and Technical Education program. Colleen Strickland presented the school board with a preliminary plan for how CTE could use the property.
“[Strickland] does have a proposal that she would like to move to the top of the school board’s list for consideration, should the county purchase the property and should the county then allow the school system to utilize that property for the expansion of Franklin High School,” said Baldwin. “So, two big shoulds in there, but she would like to be moved to the front of the line for consideration.”
Strickland said that staff has been working on a plan to expand CTE in Macon County Schools. She envisions using the property as a student-run enterprise for the CTE program. Part of that could 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 establish a mini farm and hydroponic garden in addition to the greenhouse.
FHS also can’t currently offer food sciences courses because the school does not have the capacity for a commercial kitchen. Strickland would like to see the kitchen in the Higdon estate turned into a commercial kitchen that FHS can use for culinary courses. Additionally, she would like to see expanded options for students to study tourism and hospitality, a large sector of the Macon County economy.
“The thing that I think would be the nicest about all of it is it would all be student run. So students are raising the animals, students are growing the plants, harvesting, they’re doing all of the marketing, all of the cooking,” said Strickland. “Our special population, our occupational course students would be able to be a part of an enterprise where they’re interacting with the community.”
At this point, the plan is just a vision, albeit an exciting one for the school system. At the recommendation of the school board attorney, the school system will discuss and draft a memorandum of understanding to be entered into with the county commission regarding the property at its special called board meeting Wednesday, May 3.