WEST JEFFERSON-With potentially millions of taxpayer dollars on the line, Ashe County Schools prepared itself Monday night for a raucous public hearing about the district’s planned new middle school.
The Ashe County Board of Education swapped the cramped confines of its central office location for Ashe County High School’s spacious auditorium on May 2.
The board offered separate podiums for speakers to address the board and Superintendent of Ashe County Schools Todd Holden capped the comment from individual speakers at two minutes.
The idea was to offer parents and the wider Ashe County community a platform to express their hopes and concerns about the new school the county will likely build in the near future.
None of that was necessary however – at least not Monday night – as just one parent offered the board her thoughts on the matter.
Anna Thomas, a Creston resident and the mother of a Blue Ridge Elementary School first grader, asked the board to remember families in outlying communities when the location for the new school is selected.
“I think I speak for a lot of the parents out there in that we’re all just a little bit worried about the placement being too far away from our homes,” Thomas said.
She said her daughter’s one way bus ride lasts nearly 90 minutes and told the board that placing a centralized middle school in the wrong location could put a burden on both parents and students that live in outlying areas.
Thomas’s statement lasted roughly one minute and brought the hearing to a close.
Now’s the time
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.
But that building is showing its age and 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. It’s also only large enough to school seventh and eighth graders versus a “true” middle school format which normally includes sixth graders, as well.
County leaders have said a new school might cost some $24-$26 million, and the county will soon be in prime shape to tackle the project as the slate is about to be cleared on several long-standing debt obligations.
Ashe County High School and Westwood Elementary will soon be paid off – that’ll free up more than $1.4 million annually the county could use to pay for a new school – in addition to paying off the Ashe County Library by 2019. The county will also have access to a .25 percent sales tax allotment that county taxpayers approved two years ago.
As a result, the county receives roughly $540,000 a year with nearly all of that is going to Ashe Memorial Hospital. That was a three year agreement designed to help the hospital through a financial rough patch, but that deal will end next year.
Time for answers
While school board members have long known a new middle school is needed, no concrete plans have yet been laid. The building’s design and features are all up in the air and the county has yet to purchase the ground the school will be built on.
“Well, I’ll tell you I was hoping for a little more feedback than what we got here tonight,” Holden said following Monday’s hearing.
While the board of education and school system will have the full authority to select the school they want and where they’ll put it, Ashe County will finance the project. That means county commissioners will have to be on board with the plan.
Jeff Rose, the current Chairman of the Ashe County Board of Commissioners, has publicly expressed his full support for the board of education and in helping them build the new school. Commissioners Gary Roark and Brien Richardson both said following Monday’s meeting they want to help the district build the school it needs.
“I’ve had my own kids go through over at the old Northwest,” Richardson said. “The school has always tried to do the best it can with what it’s got, but that facility is really outdated and I think we should do what we can to help them.”
Richardson stressed that he’d like to see the middle school shifted from its current location in Warrensville to somewhere closer to the Buffalo area or Smethport, which he said is the county’s true geographic center.
“I would not, however, want to see it put anywhere too close to the high school,” Richardson said. “If you put 1,000 more kids there and add extra congestion right by the high school, that won’t work out well. But, in the end it’s going to be up to the school board. It’s their call. I think they’ll come up with something that’s fair for everyone in the end.”
Roark said he isn’t necessarily put off by the $24-$26 million price tag that has sometimes been quoted to bring the school to life, and he also isn’t pessimistic that the school system will have a hard time finding suitable land for the venture.
“I do think, looking at the high school, that you can build something that makes a little bit better use of space. I think both the high school and the courthouse could have been built to maximize the space a little better,” Roark said. “And I think if you decide to build vertically instead of going with one floor like the elementary schools, they’ll be able to find land that works.”
Reach Adam Orr at 336-489-3058 or Twitter.com/AdamROrr.