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Commissioners start process to build two new schools in Asheville

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3/21/2012 - Commissioners start process to build two new schools in Asheville
by Mark Barrett - Asheville Citizen Times

ASHEVILLE -- The city school system will get $2 million to plan replacements for Asheville Middle School and Isaac Dickson Elementary School, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners decided Tuesday.

Commissioners approved a resolution that will allow money the county gets from state government to go to pay architects and other planners to decide how best to replace the schools.

That process will probably take 12-18 months, County Manager Wanda Greene said.

"At the end of this, we'll know exactly what we need," she said.

Most likely, one new school will be built, then another, Greene said.

Commissioners voted 5-0 to approve the spending after hearing praise from Asheville City Schools officials and no opposition.

"We've got a moral obligation to provide for these kids. It's the best investment we can make," said David Gantt, board chairman.

A study done for city schools in 2010 said it would cost $32 million to replace Asheville Middle. Tuesday's action only involves spending on planning.

Dickson Elementary is 60 years old, and Asheville Middle is around 50, city Schools Superintendent Allen Johnson said after the meeting.

"They're at the end of their life cycle," he said.

Aging roofs, plumbing, heating, ventilation, air-conditioning and other systems at the schools mean city schools have had significant expenses just to keep the buildings in working order in recent years, Johnson said.

The buildings' conditions also mean that energy costs are higher than necessary, he said.

"The buildings are safe, but they're deteriorating, and we're spending a lot of money just trying to maintain," Johnson said.

Plus, Asheville Middle is not arranged in the "pod" layout that has all students in each grade going to class on the same hall as newer schools do, Johnson said.

Both schools will remain at their present sites, Johnson said, and some existing Asheville Middle facilities may be a part of the new school.

Asheville Middle is on South French Broad Avenue, and Dickson Elementary is on Hill Street just north of Interstate 240.

Commissioners discussed the schools at their Jan. 31 retreat, and, judging by comments at Tuesday's meeting, city schools officials have lobbied hard for money for improvements in individual meetings with commissioners and other county officials.

"We've been to each one of you all, and we've been to (Greene's) office probably 10 times the number of times we've been to yours," Gene Bell, chairman of the city school board, told commissioners.

County government is responsible for both city and county school systems' building needs and county schools' under state law.

At least some money that flows through county coffers for school construction must be spent proportionately on the two systems, meaning the much larger county system gets a bigger share of the money.

Greene said afterward that she does not know yet how spending on Asheville Middle and Dickson Elementary will affect the amount Buncombe County schools will get for capital projects.

"You can't look at that until you know how much you've got to spend," she said.

Much of the planning money will come from state lottery proceeds and sales tax revenue the county is required to spend on school construction, Green said.

The resolution commissioners passed Tuesday says the county can reimburse itself for the money spent on planning when it borrows money to make actual improvements to the schools.

The resolution is a legal requirement imposed by the Internal Revenue Service, Greene said.

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