Macon County Board of Education hasbeen approved for $1.5 million in state QZAB (Qualified Zone Academy Bonds). QZAB funds is a pocket of state monies that is designated for school renovations. The county has utilized these funds in the past when making needed renovations to East Franklin Elementary and this year, the renovation project at Highlands School. The money is available at a zero interest rate to school districts across the state to allow needed repairs to be made. QZAB funds however, require a local 10 percent funding match.
The possibility of acquiring the available QZAB funds was the center of discussion during last week's Joint Facilities Review Committee meeting. Because state statute identifies public education facilities as being a responsibility of the county, Macon County formed a Joint Facilities Review Committee comprised of members of the school system and county commissioners to allow a forum to discuss the upkeep and management of such facilities.
Macon County schools superintendent Dr. Chris Baldwin informed members of the committee that if the county decided to apply for the QZAB funds, the system is guaranteed $1.5 million but state officials have suggested that additional monies may be available.
Dr. Baldwin noted that QZAB funds can only be used to renovate the existing footprint of a school facility. While improvements can be made using the funds, altering the existing building plans can not. With that introduction, Baldwin began by discussing the greatly needed improvements to Franklin High School's athletic facilities.
Franklin High School found themselves in the dark not once, but twice during the first round of the playoff game in the Panther Pit last month. During the football game, the lights to the field went off twice, each time for different reasons. While the first power outage was reportedly due to a Duke Power transformer failing, Dr. Baldwin said the second power outage was due to an overload in the current field houses. The playoff game was the first game of the year in which both the visitors and home locker rooms ran heaters. The power grid for the field houses was not able to sustain the need, causing a fuse to blow and the power to go out. Baldwin explained that the field houses are not sufficient and could benefit from renovations.
As presented last Thursday, the current plan for the field houses is to complete a two-phase building project. The first phase for the old field house is to renovate the existing building using QZAB funds to provide a mat room for the Franklin High School wrestling team to practice. The wrestling team has scrambled to find practicing locations, and is currently practicing at Union Academy. Renovating the old field house would provide a permanent mat room with space for the wrestling team. The second phase would entail building a second story, which wouldn't qualify for QZAB construction and would call for county dollars.
Other major projects Baldwin listed as possible renovations under the QZAB funding would be an overhaul renovation of Union Academy. The school, which averages 100 students, is an alternative school. School districts are required by law to provide an alternative public education opportunity for at-risk children. Union Academy, which allows Macon County to be in compliance with state laws, does not have a functioning kitchen and has not been renovated since the late 1980s. Nearby South Macon buses in breakfast and lunch options each day to provide meals for students. The original plan when Union Elementary was closed, was to keep the building closed and to deem it surplus as was done with Cartoogechaye and Cullasaja elementary schools. But with the introduction of state laws requiring districts to provide options for alternative education, Union Academy was formed. The current building is operating with the building's existing boiler, oil fired heat, no insulation and windows that are not energy efficient. Dr. Baldwin explained that the much needed renovations to Union Academy would be ideal for QZAB funding. An early estimate from Contractor Mike Watson would put the total cost of renovations to Union Academy at $1,733,000.
Dr. Baldwin also identified renovation projects at Macon Middle School including an upgrade to the locker room facilities as well as the HVAC system. The middle school locker room has been identified previously by the school board as needing renovations, but when improvements are prioritized, the locker rooms are relegated to the back burner. The boys locker room at the middle school was at one time used as storage for old weight lifting equipment from the high school. When the weight lifting equipment was placed in the locker room, students lost space for changing. Old and broken lockers were also thrown away, eliminating space for visiting teams to store personal belongings when visiting Macon Middle School for sporting activities.
In addition to projects that would fall under QZAB funding, Dr. Baldwin informed the committee of additional projects needing to be completed. A major and costly project Dr. Baldwin introduced was resurfacing the Franklin High School football field with turf. With an anticipated upfront cost of $500,000, Dr. Baldwin noted that on the back end, turf football fields prove to be considerably more cost effective.
County Commissioner Ronnie Beale, one of the commission's liaisons to the school board, noted that before putting turf on the football field could even be considered, the water runoff on the field and adjacent parking lot would first have to be addressed.
The drainage surrounding the current field is not sufficient and cannot manage significant amounts of rainfall. "Basically, when the Franklin area experiences heavy rainfall, the drainage in and around the student parking lot cannot handle the run off," explained Dr. Baldwin. "This water, along with drainage from Ulco and Wayah streets contributes to the flooding of the football field seen in the photos. During the event depicted in the photos, water was seen spewing up out of cracks in the pavement of the student parking lot."
Beale advised Baldwin to prioritize and price out the proposed renovations to have something concrete to take to the board of commissioners for approval. Citing the county's debt load, Beale emphasized the importance of managing the county's debt and reducing existing payments before taking on additional projects. Beale said that with the uncertainty in state funding for the school system, the county has to be prepared to take on more financial responsibilities in public education if the state shifts the priority to the local level. “You can have the Taj Mahal, but if you don't have quality teachers to teach the kids, it won't do you any good,” said Beale.
The school system is in the process of prioritizing the projects and will have something solid to give commissioners for consideration in the coming months.