Brittney Lofthouse – Contributing Writer
The Macon County Board of Commissioners held a special called meeting Friday afternoon to consider a postponement of the Macon Middle School renovation project. The special called meeting came after Macon County Commissioners Gary Shields and Commissioner Josh Young spoke to members of the board of education on Monday regarding Young’s desire to temporarily halt the project to consider alternative options.
Young asked commissioners to pause the multi-million dollar middle school renovation project while exploring additional options. Young asked for consideration of the possibility of instead of only renovating the middle school, doing due diligence to look at long-term planning for school facilities that could potentially address infrastructure needs over the next 10 years.
After much debate, commissioners ultimately voted 3-2 to move forward with the middle school renovation project. Young and Commissioner Paul Higdon cast the dissenting votes. The commissioners’ vote to move forward with the renovation project does not mean other projects won’t also be considered, it just means that the county will move forward with the deadlines established for finalizing the loan for the middle school renovation project.
Young’s spoke to the board of education on Monday, Feb. 22, stating that he wanted to ensure that “due diligence” is completed on the MMS renovation project. Young, who is serving his first term on the board of commissioners, was appointed as a liaison to the board of education. He believes there may be options outside of the current MMS renovation plans that will not only address the MMS renovations but also address issues with other school facilities such as Franklin High School.
According to Young, he has spoken with local businessman Phil Drake about 14 acres of property that adjoins Macon Middle School to increase the available acreage surrounding the school.
The current middle school property sits on 34 acres and the additional 14 acres owned by Drake would increase the property to 48 acres total. Young’s proposal includes not moving forward with the renovation of the middle school, but rather due to structural concerns he doesn’t think can be adequately addressed with renovations, exposing the possibility of demolishing the current middle school building and completely building a new structure. Young was adamant that renovations may very well be the best avenue to pursue, however, before moving forward with the project, he wanted to temporarily pause consideration of renovations while other options are explored.
“As leaders in the community, I think we owe it to the taxpayers to look down a different avenue, to look down all avenues to make sure we are making the right decision before we spend this $13 million,” said Young.
Young’s proposal includes expediting a long-term plan to comprehensively address needs within the Macon County School system over the next decade. Young’s proposal looked at four current needs at various schools in the district.
“If we plan this out right, we could shift all of our grade levels up a grade level, which means we would have K-3 at the elementary schools, 4 and 5 at the intermediate, 6,7, and 8 at the middle school,” said Young. “That would extend capacity at all of our schools. By being mindful of new construction, we just potentially saved $7 million.”
Young acknowledged that he also understood that by not doing the proposed and already approved renovations at the middle school, the county would lose around $1 million.
“I don’t want to be condescending, there is wasted money if we don’t do renovations. There is $1 million, probably more than a million dollars and countless times,” said Young. “I am just thinking out loud that maybe some of the pros may outweigh the cons.”
Young noted that surrounding counties like Jackson, Clay, Rabun County, and all the way to Buncombe County have spend money to renovate or build new facilities, school facilities that he believes are better than Macon County — and while he said he doesn’t support raising taxes, he stated he understands it may be necessary.
Young noted that Macon County currently has about $25 million in the county’s fund balance — and he believes that the county could spend a combination of funds from the fund balance, a loan, and a bond, to spend money now to address some needs and not have to look at raising taxes in the next five years to fund it.
“I haven’t even been through a budget process yet, so there is a lot of learning to do, but I feel like there is some money we can redirect,” said Young.
Young said he doesn’t want to consider an increase to sales tax to fund the projects — referencing a state law that allows counties to increase sales tax to generate funds for school infrastructure.
“I want to find a way to do this now,” he said.
To demonstrate the need for a long-term plan for Macon County Schools facilities, Young discussed the current conditions of Franklin High School and the deterioration of facilities such as the track. Young said that his proposal would look at addressing needs at schools such as the high school over the next 10 years.
“All I am asking is to consider a plan,” Young said. “We go to the middle school and we come up with a plan.”
Macon Middle School Principal Scot Maslin said that he is appreciative of the commissioner’s vote to move forward with the middle school renovations, however, he believes Commissioner Young’s proposal has merit and agreed that a long term plan for the school district needs to occur.
“More than being just a principal, I am speaking as a resident and a parent,” said Maslin. “We have to do something for the kids in our county. We have to give them something to look forward to, something they can be proud of, and I think that starts with our school facilities.”
Maslin noted that he shares concerns that the renovation project will not address all the structural needs within the current middle school building. In terms of space and capacity, Maslin said that the middle school is sufficient and if the issues such as the excess moisture is fixed, then the renovations could be the right avenue to take.
MMS Renovation Proposal
The scope of work proposed for Macon Middle School includes the addition of a 6,400 square foot locker room facility – which would be added to the facility’s existing 100,477 square footage. The work needing to be addressed includes roof repairs, wall assembly, cabinet and window replacements, interior finishes such as paint and restroom partitions, HVAC replacement, and plumbing updates.
Macon County Manager Derek Roland presented a timeline of the middle school project to the board on Friday — laying out the work that has been completed to date.
The Macon Middle School project was first brought to the attention of the board of commissioners in 2017 during the annual budget planning process as part of the school district’s capital outlay needs. Roland said that at that point, the project was added to the county’s overall capital improvement plan.
While the county commissioners are responsible for funding schools, they do so at the request and need from the board of education. The board of education first made the county aware of needs in 2017 when $2.7 million was requested for capital improvements to MMS.
Because of the significant needs at MMS, the county added the school project to the county’s overall capital infrastructure needs and in 2019 contracted with Novis architecture who conducted a general review of the facility.
Novis’ report stated that in general, Macon Middle School had been well cared for and was in good to fair conditions. The firm noted that with recommended renovations completed, the school would continue to serve the district’s needs for several years.
In August 2019, the Macon County Board of Education approves the RFQ (Request for Qualifications) for renovations to the middle school. The Macon County School Liaison Committee — comprised of members of both the board of education and board of commissioners as well as county and school maintain and finance staff — received five bids in response to the RFQ and based on those bids unanimously recommended SGA NarmourWright Designs to develop plans for the project.
In October 2019, with unanimous approval by the board of education and board of commissioners, the county began working with SGA NarmourWright on the renovation project at the middle school. Between October and February of 2020, the joint committee worked diligently on the scope of work needed at the middle school to develop a comprehensive plan for the renovation project to address the most pressing needs.
Commissioners unanimously approved the architectural contract in its entirety in February 2020.
In June 2020, due to the extent of the project, the renovations to Macon Middle School had been revised to total $15 million. By June 2020, the county was facing uncertainty around COVID19 and after discussions with the committee and architect, the board discussed postponing the project prior to soliciting construction bids due to financial uncertainty.
Despite that economic uncertainty in the fall of 2020, members of the school system and county who had worked jointly on the project emphasized the importance of moving forward, so the project was put out to bid.
In October 2020, the board of commissioners approved a pre-qualification committee comprised of four members of the school system and four members of the county. The committee was tasked with the architectural plans and pre-qualifying eligible contractors to bid on the middle school renovation project.
On Dec. 10, the pre-qualification committee pre-qualified six companies to bid on the middle school renovation project.
On Jan. 4, 2021, a pre-bid meeting was held and on Jan. 11, the county approved the project findings to submit to the local government commission for approval to be able to finance the project. A public hearing was set and the county began looking at funding the project with bank loans versus bonds.
A public hearing on the project was held on Feb. 9 and the construction contract was awarded to New Atlantic Construction which is contingent on approval from the LGC and successfully closing the loan — which is currently scheduled to occur the first week in March.
On Feb. 22, the Macon County Board of Education unanimously voted to approve a resolution affirming their support of the project and their desire to move forward with the Macon Middle School renovations.
Board of Commissioner response to Young’s Proposal
Commissioners Gary Shields, Jim Tate, and Ronnie Beale all voted to move forward with renovations at Macon Middle School, but each said they support Young’s intention and also want to further plan for the future of Macon County Schools.
“I absolutely agree that we need to move forward with plans for a new high school and over planning for our school system,” Commission Chair Jim Tate said. “The Capital Improvement Plan we conducted for the entire county includes a new high school and has us moving forward with that project within the next two years, but I am certainly supportive of looking at plans for that project now.”
Tate and the other commissioners agreed with Young on the importance of a new high school facility but noted that after two years working on the renovation project at Macon Middle School, it’s imperative to address issues at that facility immediately.
Beale, who works as a general contractor and served as liaison to the board of education prior to Young, stated that after personally walking through the middle school with architects and other contractors, the middle school is in desperate need of repairs and that project cannot be delayed any longer.
Beale noted that the county has spent the last five years looking for space for a new high school and that while Young’s proposal has merit — the property proposed has already been evaluated and isn’t being considered due to its location in a flood plain and the significant costs — between $15 million and $20 million on the grading alone before a new facility could even be built on the property.
Shields, a former board of education member and former Franklin High School principal, said that he knows firsthand the need for improvements within the school system and believes that it is the county’s responsibility to move forward with renovations at Macon Middle School now and to also look toward the future of the school system.
Higdon agreed with Young and said that spending $10-$15 million on middle school renovations may not be the best financial decision. Higdon supported pausing the project to explore additional options.
“Josh and I have talked a couple of times on this, I don’t do a lot of back door dealings, but Josh and I have talked about this,” said Higdon. “What has impressed me is his youthful vigor in education and I strongly support this plan.”
Beale noted that while he supports planning for the future of schools in the county, the first question that needs to be answered is how the project would be funded. Construction firms estimate that while renovations at Macon Middle School would add at least 20 years onto the life of the school and cost between $10-$15 million, a complete rebuild would cost closer to $30 million assuming the rebuild occurred at the current location.
Projects provided by Roland showed that construction of a new middle school would have an estimated $30 million in construction, another $650,000 for the proposed additional 14 acres Young noted. However, instead of the 20 years the renovation would add, new construction would likely add 45 years.
Renovations are set to begin this spring while beginning the process of new construction would likely be delayed until 2023, and to fund the project would require a 1.3 cent tax increase or allocating $2,330,000 from the county’s fund balance.
A 1.3 cent property tax increase to fund a new middle school would generate a little over $1 million in additional revenue for the county and would increase the current tax rate from 37.4 cents of assessed value to 38.7 cents. For a home valued at $100,000 the county tax rate would increase to around $387 a year for a $13 a year increase. For a $300,000 house, the county tax would increase to $1,161 a year for a $39 a year increase. The increase estimates provided are just for consideration of a new middle school and doesn’t address the construction of a new high school. To construct a new high school, the county would be looking at an additional 6.9 cent tax increase.
In total, taxpayers would see their annual bill increase to $456 a year for a home valued at $100,000 or $1,368 a year for a home valued at $300,000, which would be an annual increase of $82 and $246 respectively.
However, continuing along the path the county has been on for the last two years, the middle school will be completely renovated beginning this spring and by 2028 the county would be looking at a tax increase of just 3.7 cents to go into effect by 2030 to cover the cost of the project $70 million to construct a new facility on 50 acres of land within Macon County.
Commissioners agreed that while a new high school facility is needed, the significant costs associated with the project should be placed on the ballot as a referendum to allow voters in Macon County a chance to decide especially considering the significant increase it would have on taxes.
With a referendum not being able to be placed on the ballots until 2022, Shields said that the county can and should certainly do that, however, delaying the vote now would not impact any decision or action in 2022, but that the middle school would continue to deteriorate.
“While I understand Mr. Young’s suggestion of delaying the project now, what is more than likely to happen is we delay this project now, we risk losing out on the $1 million we have spent over the last two years to get to the point we are at and then we end up completing the renovations anyway,” said Shields.
A big concern about exhausting the fund balance or taking out a large loan to finance a new middle school and a new high school, was the impact such a decision could have on the financial standing of the county. Similar to how individuals are held to a certain standard for debt-to-income ratio when taking out a local for a house or a car, if the county depletes the fund balance or takes out a large loan, banks will not provide funding for additional projects identified as needs in the county. Macon County just completed a capital improvement plan that highlights significant needs across Macon County to address county facilities and services such as the senior service center, veteran’s affairs, community building and library for the Nantahala Community and the Macon County Detention Center.
“If we do all of this now, we won’t be able to do anything else for all of the other areas in our county that we have identified as being in critical need,” said Beale.
The Capital Improvement Plan looked at issues such as the detention center which is constantly over capacity resulting in Macon County taxpayers being forced to fund inmate transports to other jails in WNC, which Macon County is legally obligated to do. In 2017-2018, Macon County taxpayers spent $371,481 to house inmates outside of Macon County due to overcrowding at the jail; $212,096 was spent in 2018-29; $96,403 was spent in 2019-2020; and as of January 13, county taxpayers had spent $227,280. Addressing space needs at the detention center would save taxpayers significantly each year.
Macon County’s Investment in Macon County Schools
The Macon County Board of Commissioners have taken out significant out for schools in Macon County since 2007. These loans and this funding is in addition to the annual capital outlay and operating budget allocated to the school system each year and does not reflect the 2019 property tax increase approved to increase the technology budget for Macon County Schools.
2007- $2.6 million loan for The Sanders/Owens Property that was purchased to construct Mountain View Intermediate School.
2007: A $2 million QZAB loan to renovate East Franklin Elementary School
2008- $2.8 million loan issued to construct MVI and an expansion at East Franklin Elementary School.
2010- $12.8 million loan to construct Iotla Valley Elementary School
2010: A $1.8 million QZAB loan to renovate Nantahala School
2012: A $1.5 million loan used to purchase technology for Macon County Schools
2013: $374,000 to purchase defibrillators for schools
2013: A $1.5 million QZAB loan to renovate Highlands School
2015: A $2.9 million QZAB loan to renovate both Highlands School and Union Academy
2018: $2.92 loan for expansion at South Macon Elementary School
What is the Macon County Fund balance?
Macon County’s fund balance is currently around $25 million. The county fund balance acts as a savings account for the county in the event of issues that arise outside of the annual fiscal budget.
Available fund balance is an important measure of economic stability. It is essential that the county maintain adequate levels of available fund balance in order to ensure against unanticipated events that would adversely affect the financial condition of the county and jeopardize the continuation of county services and/or activities and to provide the capacity to:
a) Provide sufficient cash flow for daily financial needs;
b) Secure and maintain investment-grade bond ratings;
c) Offset significant economic downturns or revenue shortfalls;
d) Provide funds for unforeseen expenditures related to emergencies;
e) Adhere to Local Government Commission minimum fund balance
f) Provide citizens with a stable property tax rate
County governments are charged to maintain available fund balance in the General Fund in an amount no less than 8 percent (or approximately one month) of the General Fund expenditures and outflows at the end of each fiscal year, as recommended by the North Carolina Local Government Commission.
Because the state requires that counties maintain a fund balance of at least 8 percent overall operating budget, Macon County is statutorily required to keep around $7 million in the fund balance — meaning of the $25 million in the fund balance, $18 million is readily available if needed.
Similar to an individual’s savings account when applying for a home or auto loan — the balance of a county’s fund balance is viewed by banks and the local government commission when considering loan applications for the county.
Macon County has chosen to maintain a fund balance above the statutorily required amount over the last few years in order to qualify for better interest rates when applying for loans. Macon County also made increasing the fund balance a priority after the Peek’s Creek disaster of 2004 due to the amount of fund balance used to help residents recover.
School Construction Projects in other NC Counties
The Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund has awarded a total of $358.9 million to 31 local school districts since 2016. Projects funded include the replacement of 31 existing schools and the creation of 36 new schools or school buildings. Macon County, however, is considered a Tier 3 county, meaning unlike surrounding counties, Macon County does not qualify for assistance.
Among the 2020 projects in Western North Carolina funded by the needs-based public school capital fund are:
Graham County: $3.2 million to build an addition to Robbinsville Middle School to house 6th grade and other renovations to the existing middle/high school building space to accommodate the 6th grade addition ($4.2 million total project cost).
Rutherford County: $15 million for a new Rutherford-Spindale Middle School to replace the existing 94-year old school building. ($35 million total project cost).
The state legislature created the fund to help school districts in lower-wealth counties that have critical public school building capital needs. The money comes from proceeds from the North Carolina Education Lottery. Macon County, however, is considered a Tier 3 county, meaning unlike surrounding counties, Macon County does not qualify for assistance.
Other projects funded in WNC
Clay County: Clay County built its first new school in 40 years win 2020 with the construction the new Hayesville Primary School. The new school serves approximately 25% of the student population and serves students from Pre-K through second grade. It is located on a single campus with three other Clay County schools, Hayesville Elementary, Hayesville Middle, and Hayesville High.
The new school cost $14 million to build, with $10.2 million coming from money raised by the Education Lottery and the remaining $3.8 million from local funds appropriated by the Clay County Board of Commissioners.
Hayesville Primary School is one of the latest school to open in North Carolina through the Needs-Based Public-School Construction Fund.
The program, funded exclusively by money raised by the lottery, helps small, rural counties with critical building needs. Since its inception, 26 school districts across North Carolina have received grants, resulting in 26 new school or buildings and the replacement of 29 older, existing schools.
Swain County: Swain High School is nearing completion of renovations to the high school after years of working to secure funding to make it happen.
The new construction covers several areas, including a new entranceway, an administrative suite, and will eventually have three additional classrooms. The current administration and counseling area has been in use since 1977. This project includes an entire suite to be used by the counseling staff, and a suite to be used for the administrative staff. Once everyone has moved into the new areas, it will leave the old locations available to be remodeled into the three new classrooms.
For the past few years, Swain County has applied for an NC Education Lottery Construction Grant, these are competitive grants but Swain County was fortunate enough to receive last year. The grant ($4.7 million) funded about 75 percent of the project and the Swain County Commissioners met the remaining portion.
Jackson County: Planning for the field began when Jackson Schools landed a competitive grant from the NFL that would contribute $200,000 toward construction of an artificial turf field. The complete cost of the project was around $900,000 with the remaining balance being funded by county commissioners and community donations.