The Buncombe County Board of Education has agreed to enter into a contract to purchase 22.5 acres of land to build a new intermediate school in the Enka District.
The move was applauded by supporters who say they’ve waited years for a solution to overcrowding at schools in the district, just one in the Buncombe County school system. The system, overall, serves approximately 25,500 students and is the largest in Western North Carolina.
But the decision wasn’t unanimous. The board voted 5 to 1 to proceed with the purchase of the property, which is estimated to cost nearly $2 million, with one board member raising questions about the effort’s timing and potential expense.
Supporters organized the Committee for Equal Education for Enka in January to lobby for a new school to alleviate overcrowding at Enka Middle School and three elementary schools in the district, which encompasses the western portion of Buncombe County.
Plans for it were first discussed in 2007, along with the intermediate schools in the Erwin and Roberson districts, which have now been built.
“It’s obvious to the parents of Enka that this has been a seven-year stall; let’s not stall again,” group spokeswoman Michelle Pace Wood told board members prior to their vote on June 6 to begin the purchase process for the undeveloped property near the intersection of Sand Hill and Sardis roads.
A petition calling for the school board to return the school to the top of the priority construction list was signed by 167 people and emailed to each board member prior to the meeting.
The new school will be funded from the one-cent local government sales tax provided by N.C. General Statute Chapter 105, Article 39. Plans similar to those used for the Eblen and Koontz intermediate schools will be used for the Enka Intermediate School. According to facilities department staff, the school is expected to cost about $25 million. Had the school been built at the time the other two intermediate schools were built, it would have cost only $18.2 million, Wood said.
“We have waited patiently while the Erwin (Eblen) school was built and the Koontz school was built and the STEM school got built. It’s time to take a step forward,” said Enka resident John Sutton, who has two children, one at Enka Middle School and one at Hominy Valley Elementary.
According to material provided by the Enka committee, students complain that they can’t open lockers safely due to the number of students in the hallways at Enka Middle. Lunch lines are long and serving begins at 10:30 a.m., Wood said, and some students can’t sit while they eat because there is not enough room in the cafeteria.
Candler, Pisgah and Sand Hill-Venable elementary schools are also overcrowded, she said. Moving sixth-grade students out of Enka Middle and fifth-grade students from those elementary schools will correct the overcrowding at all four schools, she added.
Bob Rhinehart, Enka’s representative on the school board and board chairman, said the Enka project was put on hold when the school system and the owners, a group of investors known as Fletcher Partners, could not agree on a price for the property, the same now under consideration. He said the decision to go ahead with the Koontz and Eblen intermediate schools was based mainly on economics and population trends at the time.
“I think when the economy went south, it changed demographics a little bit and changed priorities;” Rhinehart said.
The school board considered other locations for the Enka Intermediate School, Rhinehart said in a later interview, including building behind the Hominy Valley Elementary School. That school is located across from Enka High School and traffic is already heavy at times, he said. The cost would have been more than the cost for the property on Sand Hill Road, he said.
“This is an excellent central location. I don’t think we could find a better location for this school,” Rhinehart said of the planned site.
Support, questions raised
About 10 Enka residents, parents, advocates and retired educators — including Buncombe County Commissioners Joe Belcher and David King — voiced support for the new school during the June 6 school board meeting.
Belcher, who lives in Candler and represents Enka, Roberson and Erwin on the including Buncombe County Commissioners Joe Belcher and David King, said his children attended Enka schools, and he believes an intermediate school could make a big difference in the overcrowding, particularly at the middle school.
Board member Lisa Baldwin voted against it, suggesting that a decision be postponed until a public hearing could be held and other options and issues could be addressed.
Baldwin said there are schools in Buncombe County under capacity, suggesting the possibility of redrawing district lines to relieve the overcrowding at Enka Middle.
She also said the board needs to consider both the possibility of adding modular units at the existing middle school and whether proposed charter schools will result in the loss of some students.
“Three charter schools are scheduled to open in 2014, including the Franklin School of Innovation, which may be in the Enka District,” Baldwin said. She also said Buncombe County Schools already owns 127 modular units and that option should be explored before building more new schools.
“We need to ask if this is fiscally responsible. Buncombe County Schools is over $130 million in debt and I haven’t seen a plan to repay that,” she said.
Baldwin also questioned whether there may be contamination issues around the property, which is about one mile from an inactive hazardous waste site.
Facilities Director Tim Fierle said there would be extensive environmental testing before the purchase decision is made as part of the “due-diligence” period, and that the land in question is mostly undeveloped. The due-diligence period will also include obtaining a current appraisal of the property, a survey and environmental study, Rhinehart said.
Solution to overcrowding?
Wood said during a later interview that the Committee for Equal Education in Enka believes a new intermediate school is more fiscally responsible than upgrading four overcrowded schools.
Enka Middle is the most overcrowded middle school west of Charlotte, she said, citing data from the N.C. School Report Cards website of the North Carolina Education Research Council, the Governor’s Office, and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. See that information here.
Enka Middle has about 1,100 students, she said. A new planned exit for Interstate 40 onto Dogwood Road, midway between the two existing exits of 37 and 44, could create growth that may increase the number of students even higher, Wood said.
There are safety issues to consider with using modulars, she said, adding that charter schools are not a realistic option, particularly when 62 percent of the students at Enka Middle School receive free or reduced price lunches, an indication of the low income level of those households.
“The Enka community deserves good schools, which will in turn bring more prosperity to the area,” Wood said. “One of the first things a business or family wants to know before locating to an area is the quality of schools. We are not asking for more, we are just asking for the same education for our children that every other district in Buncombe County enjoys.
“We feel like we have made our case based on facts, and we expect the board to move forward based on those facts. The longer this school is delayed, the more it will likely cost to build.”