The hot topic on the Buncombe County Commissioners’ agenda Tuesday was whether or not the school system should follow through with plans to develop a STEM center at the former Career Education Center on Bingham Road. The Buncombe County School Board approved at their last meeting the expenditure of $5 million from North Carolina Education Lottery funds plus half a million more from local sales tax revenues for renovations to the building.
During the general public comment period, a handful of residents asked the commissioners to decline the request for funding. Many referred to scientific expertise, sometimes their own, correctly indicating the random samplings did not rule out the possibility of contamination. The commissioners, however, would agree with the school board that, based on reasonable interpretations from a systems approach, the selected site was as potentially hazardous as any other location in the county.
Superintendent Tony Baldwin explained the plan was to create an educational environment unlike any anybody in the room had seen before. STEM is an acronym for a science, technology, engineering, and math curriculum. The four fields, which, according to Baldwin, are currently the most demanded by job creators and the highest paid, are to be integrated into every phase of the school’s curriculum, including the English courses. He requested no further delays, which would deprive an entire class of opportunities for twenty-first century employment.
School board member Lisa Baldwin had championed the campaign against proceeding with the construction. On behalf of the children, she argued every precaution should be taken to safeguard them against deleterious effects from possible exposure to perchloroethylene. The need to pursue further testing became a matter of political preference, with Republicans demanding more data.
Superintendent Baldwin focused his presentation on the benefits of preparing students for tomorrow’s jobs. He told of immense community support. Colleges were asked to give college credit for STEM courses, much like the various versions of early college do now. Business owners were more than excited at the idea of requiring students to intern.
Baldwin said it was not the point of his presentation “to debate disinformation,” but he proceeded anyway. He said rumors about the contamination originated with a case of mistaken identity. The NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources had determined 128 Bingham Road to be a contaminated site, but the site for the STEM school is across the street at 175 Bingham Road. 128 Bingham, in the words of Baldwin, “currently houses multiple offices, and two have federal government employees. More than 200 employees work there, including Tony Baldwin.”
Baldwin related how tests of groundwater at 175 detected no contaminants exceeding allowable thresholds. Groundwater contamination was never a concern as it had been at the CTS site because the facility has always been connected to the city’s water system. As a further precaution, the school system tested the ground itself for contamination at eight additional points on the property. To date, Baldwin said the results of all tests have been “non-detect.” Stressing the importance of getting the show on the road, Baldwin said the school will continue to monitor the test sites for four more years.
“My number-one mission as superintendent is to do what’s right for kids,” said Baldwin. He therefore could not allow “25,600 students to be held hostage one more year.”
Commissioner Mike Fryar called attention to the schools the county had built overestimating growth. He asked why the STEM building couldn’t have been built in one of the underutilized schools. Baldwin reiterated his position that the school would look nothing like any traditional education setup, and any school would require substantial renovation to accommodate it. He said BCS had already considered the other buildings before deciding upon the 175 Bingham Road location. In response to concerns that the location was “out of the way,” Baldwin said it was, in fact, centrally-located in the school district.
That said, Fryar was still disappointed the school system was spending so much money on buildings instead of children. To this, Baldwin replied that state lottery funds had to be spent on capital improvements, not operations; but he was not averse to the idea of the commissioners trying to schmooze the General Assembly into bending some of the rules.
At the prompting of Vice Chair Holly Jones, Baldwin told the audience about the school system’s intention to apply for new state funding that could pay for 60 to 65 percent of its operating budget. Any funding would be awarded on a competitive basis.
The quote of the night came from Chairman David Gantt. Responding to Baldwin’s comments about Buncombe County breaking new ground with the school, he said, “We can’t wait for the state and federal government to lead. We’ve got to lead them.” In the end, the commissioners voted unanimously to approve the funding to get the STEM school up and running for the 2014-2015 school year.