School district wants your thoughts on new school

Public hearing scheduled for 7 p.m. May 2 at ACHS

WEST JEFFERSON-On Monday night the Ashe County Board of Education will take one more step toward replacing its aging Ashe County Middle School.

The board will host a public hearing at 7 p.m. on May 2, in the auditorium at Ashe County High School prior to the board’s regular meeting.

You’ll have a chance to speak directly to board members about whether you think a potential new middle school should be built at all, how much it should cost and where it should be located.

Half a century of service

School board members and county leaders have long spoke out about the need for a new Ashe County Middle School. The current ACMS is located in Warrensville and was originally built as Northwest Ashe High School more than half a century ago. It’s served as Ashe County Middle School since 2000, when the county’s three high schools consolidated with the opening of Ashe County High School.

Why is a new middle school needed?

In short, district officials say the building and the property is showing its age. The current structure is large enough for only seventh and eighth graders instead of a “true” middle school, which usually houses grades 6-8, according to Superintendent of Ashe County Schools Todd Holden. And because the school was built more than 50 years ago, much of the property is out of step with current building codes, including everything from energy efficiency to the ability to withstand a seismic event.

Couldn’t we simply renovate the existing structure?

We could, and such a move could be substantially cheaper than building an entirely new middle school on property the county would have to purchase. Watauga-based architect Larry Greene told the board in 2012 that such a renovation might cost some $7.6-$10.8 million. But Greene also told the board that while he found the current ACMS structure to be in “fair condition” and that renovation of the existing facility to an acceptable standard is feasible, “structural and architectural elements are deteriorating at a rate which makes the buildings undesirable for long-term usage.” Greene said the existing on-site sewer system is not adequate to accommodate the expansion of the school, which Ashe County Board of Education Member Lee Beckworth said in 2014 concerns him when considering placing a new school on the same site.

How much could a new school cost?

Greene told the board in 2012 that a new middle school would cost the county between $17.5-$24 million, while other county leaders, including Ashe County Manager Sam Yearick, have estimated a new school could cost some $26 million at current construction prices. That’s a hefty price tag, but could allow the district to achieve multiple objectives at once – if done right, Holden has said in previous interviews. A true middle school that houses grades 6-8 would free up additional space at each of the county’s three elementary schools, which could head off costly building projects at Mountain View, Westwood and Blue Ridge Elementary.

Finding suitable property will also be a challenge

Board members have repeatedly said their greatest challenge just might be finding suitable land to build such a school on. Ashe County Economic Developer Cathy Barr maintains a map of land suitable for major building projects – it’s important information that can be passed on to manufacturers looking to build a new factory, for instance – and the list isn’t very long, Holden said. It’s possible for the county to purchase a piece of property and move enough earth to make a marginal site usable, but moving that much dirt can be expensive, according to Ashe County Board of Education Member Terry Williams in previous interviews.

Strike will the iron is hot

School board members and county officials have said on multiple occasions in recent months that now is the time to begin planning the building of a new school as the slate is about to be cleared on several long-standing debt obligations. Remaining on the county’s balance is annual payments of $760,000 for the high school and $730,000 on Westwood, as well as $409,000 on the library, according to county finance records. Debt service on the high school ends this year and in 2017-18 at Westwood. County officials said the library should be paid off by 2019. But the elimination of certain debts isn’t the only increase in funding the county will be enjoying.

Two years ago, citizens voted to increase the county sales tax by one quarter of 1 percent.

As a result, Ashe received roughly $540,000 a year with nearly all of that is going to Ashe Memorial Hospital annually. The original agreement slated a three-year agreement with the next fiscal year being the last installment.

And no decisions have been made

Williams said Tuesday that no decisions concerning the proposed middle school have been made. “None of this has been closed door stuff and no decisions have been made, despite the constant rumors floating around,” Williams said. “We want to talk about the possibilities of where it can be and what needs to be incorporated into this. For that, we want to hear what people think. At the end of the day we’re servants and we want to do what’s in the best interest of the kids, so this is your opportunity to come in and let us know what you’re thinking.”

‘Commissioners are on board’

Members of the Ashe County Board of Commissioners have also indicated their willingness to help the district build a new middle school, though commissioners are also planning the building of a fire training center and are trying to help Wilkes Community College’s Ashe Campus figure out solutions to its own space constraints. “Bottom line though, the commissioners have been nothing but receptive about this new middle school idea,” Williams said. “I feel like the partnership between the two boards is strong and I’m confident they’re going to help us do the right thing by our students.”

Leadership in flux

The impending departure of Holden – he announced his resignation earlier this month to take the top administrator’s position in Madison County – means his replacement will see the district through the critical planning and building of the new school. “We’re going to put a lot of thought into finding the next superintendent and it’s something you just can’t do overnight,” Williams said.

Reach Adam Orr at 336-489-3058.

Public hearing scheduled for 7 p.m. May 2 at ACHS
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