Citizen Don Yelton got the Buncombe County Commissioners’ meeting off to a sour note. The room was packed for public comment, and Yelton said he had everybody’s number. Concerned parents, teachers, and children had shown up because they loved and cared for children. Their hearts would be overflowing with compassion as they petitioned the commissioners. Yelton, who has been attending public meetings for years, remarked, “When you see a crowd like this, they’re lining up at the trough for money.”
At issue was the receipt of a report the commissioners had requested. Back on March 20, 2012, the commissioners unanimously approved the spending of $2 million from the School Capital Commission Fund for architectural services and other studies to commence the replacement of Asheville Middle School and Isaac Dickson Elementary.
Both schools are in the Asheville School System, but that was not a problem. Everybody accepted the awkward situation created by the legislature’s rules for administering funds in a state where most counties have only one district. The way the law was set up, Asheville City Schools could only receive 15 percent of a pot of money for capital improvements. This was not enough, according to numerous citizens who challenged anybody who disagreed to a tour of the two schools in question.
The commissioners were all more than sympathetic toward the cause. They had no problem shouldering the burden. The problem was, nobody knew where the county was going to get funding for the projects.
The report was provided by a tag-team from Asheville City Schools. State-of-the-art renderings of the new schools was provided on the big screens. The need for 21st century schools was stressed. The phrase was used to describe an adaptability and ambience for a future currently beyond anybody’s imagination. It was used like a New Age retailer uses the word “energy” to sell trinkets. The need for connectivity, to strategic buy-in partners, was also heavily repeated.
The presentation for the new elementary school was deemed acceptable, with three wings for each grade, a media center, multi-purpose room, and office space. Green features would include a community garden, greenhouse, and other popular amenities. There were even plans to display a dinosaur skeleton that would be donated by the energy consultant’s brother. Designed by former Asheville School Board member John Legerton, it appealed to the commissioners as a functional facility on a par with other schools in the county.
The virtual walkaround was accompanied by a rendition of “Inch by Inch, Row by Row” that sounded reminiscent of the now popular tune, “If I Had a Million Dollars.” That, unfortunately, would only be a drop in the bucket. The new 74,522 sq. ft. school is estimated to cost about $200.20 per sq. ft.
During public comment, one lady who complimented Dickson on being dirty, in an earthy way, told how children thought other public schools were “private schools for rich kids” after seeing their restrooms at sporting events. Complaints were lodged about mice, bees in the walls, drafty single-pane windows, and no post-Sandy Hook security at Isaac Dickson now. Long hallways were particularly disconcerting.
The only concerns about the new elementary school plans were voiced by one student from William Randolph School and his teacher. The new elementary school is slated to displace Randolph’s current population. The school currently serves special-needs, at-risk kids and boasts a success rate from the extra attention it can give kids while removing them from adverse environments. The teacher and student were blindsided by news at the meeting of plans to pack up and store their stuff. The commissioners responded compassionately with promises to try to help.
The plans for the middle school were not as well received. Mischievous laughter was muffled in the audience when a watercolor aerial view of the school was presented. It was shaped, of all things, like a gun, or at least a good hose nozzle. This school took more of a green tack in designing a LEED-certifiable, three-story school that, at $221/sq. ft. would cost $46.9 million.
That did not impress the commissioners. They wanted what was best for the children, but building a primo school would introduce inequality among students. Supporters of the plans argued LEED was the new normal and not an added expense. The school board had caught grief because a quote had come in much lower from another organization, Liollio Architecture. School representatives showed a side-by-side comparison of what was included in the estimates. They said they would have gotten from Liollio what PBC+L was proposing, minus everything that would fall out if the building were turned upside-down and shaken.
The commissioners stressed how they had all struggled to identify a funding source for pragmatic, utility-grade schools with no success to date. The reports were received with the impression that the commissioners liked the plans, with perhaps some paring of the middle school; and felt optimistic a revenue stream would be identified.