A meeting was called on short notice for Macon County Commissioners and Board of Education (BOE) members to meet with North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) representatives, Jan. 23, at the Macon County Schools Administrative Office. The meeting appeared to be an opportunity to further pitch the need for Franklin High School (FHS) project grant funding, following a request made in mid-2023 but not yet approved.
By the end of the meeting, most who attended were surprised by what transpired.
As the 11:30 a.m. meeting began, N.C. State Senator Kevin Corbin and District 120 Representative Karl Gillespie arrived, along with DPI Superintendent Catherine Truitt and members of her staff. Other local dignitaries at the meeting included Town of Franklin Mayor Jack Horton and Town of Highlands Mayor Pat Taylor, Franklin Chamber of Commerce President Matt Corbin, and Executive Director Linda Harbuck; along with members of the LS3P architectural team in charge of design and construction of the new high school.
Following introductions by BOE Chairman Jim Breedlove, he and Commissioner Chairman Gary Shields formally opened the meeting. Sen. Corbin then spoke on the background of the grant process.
“The model is and always has been, in North Carolina, for the county to pay for the brick and mortar and for the state to pay for positions … It’s been a long time ago that the state did a bond issue (1993). The [N.C.] Senate came up with the idea to fund some of these projects and the House agreed. We’ve been putting in about $400 million a year and paying as we go.”
Corbin added that the State provides funds to DPI, which then decides where and how the money will be allocated.
Gillespie followed Corbin and defined the State’s role a bit further.
“It’s not our job to make local decisions – it’s our job to make sure, every day, that we bring 100% of available funding back to our district.”
Truitt then quipped, “I’ve always heard that there is life west of Hickory and now I know it’s true. I’m kidding – I toured Nantahala school; it was one of the first schools I came to after I was elected and came to office in January 2021. I toured many counties in this area, so just know the far west is being well represented in Raleigh at the DPI, as it should be.”
Regarding funding for the FHS project, she said, “I’m so grateful to the General Assembly for making available this Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund grant because we do have some counties and districts that are in need of some extra help through the lottery funds they are appropriating. Over a billion dollars has been given so far across the state.”
Providing supplementary support of the new school project, Matt Corbin read a statement to the DPI representatives. “With mounting ADA concerns, facility needs and safety concerns, a new facility is urgently needed … the new high school project will benefit our community as a whole and encourage young families to look favorably at Macon County as a place to raise and educate their children.”
Mayor Horton thanked the county for its part in the high school project process.
“The county has always been a big supporter of our school systems … I applaud the board of education, the county commissioners, and everyone together for trying to make this project happen. You look at something that costs as much as a new high school and it scares a lot of people. If we don’t do it now, how much is it going to cost five or 10 years from now?”
“We’re here because we believe in the best interest of the students,” said Mayor Taylor. “This will be a tremendous asset to this entire county and region. We endorse this; we have three [Town of Highlands] commissioners here. We need this new comprehensive high school for this community.”
LS3P’s Emily Kite delivered a brief overview of the project, including design concepts and timelines.
“The new high school is designed with a capacity for around 1,400 students, which includes consolidation of the Bartram Academy onto the Franklin High School campus … we are right now about halfway through the construction documents phase. That’s the last phase of the project where we draw the documents for construction.”
Truitt then queried the school board on what Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs they now offer as well as what might be added in the future. In response to that question, Macon County Schools Superintendent Josh Lynch introduced CTE Director Colleen Strickland to provide specifics.
“Over the last two years, we’ve grown from eight to 20 pathways [CTE options] including aviation,” said Strickland. “We’re one of two school districts in N.C. that offers aviation … Today we had seven students take the state Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) test; we have computer science, robotics, automotive, welding, carpentry – just about anything our students would like to have. A new school will allow us to be innovative and cutting edge and have the space kids need so they can take their learning to the next level.”
Said Truitt, “The emphasis on CTE classrooms and science labs really caught my eye about your [grant] application. In my travels across the state, folks especially of a certain age say to me, ‘Why don’t we have vocational education anymore?’ The truth is, we do have vocational education and it tends to be concentrated in our rural counties. And our rural counties do a better job of ensuring there are multiple pathways for students to consider.”
At that point, one of Truitt’s staff members burst into the room holding a large cardboard check for $62 million, which prompted loud and sustained applause. The grant approval was a surprise, as was the amount, since the original request for funding totaled $50 million. However, the additional amount considers inflation, rising costs over time, and other factors. Given the expected total price of the school is projected at around $130 million, county and school board officials can now concentrate on raising a substantially lower amount of funding through other means.
“Since I’ve been on the board, one of the things we have strived for is to bring this opportunity to our students,” concluded Breedlove. “It’s incredibly exciting and beyond words.”