New, high-tech Polk Co. middle school came after long, controversial process

Published 6:34 pm Tuesday, December 29, 2009

There was imperfect voting and unacceptable re-voting on the issue of providing adequate school facilities in Polk County during the first half of the past decade.
In the end, a decision would be made by county executives with no voting at all.
After two years of campaigning, the Polk County Board of Education finally put its desperate case for a consolidated middle school before the voters of Polk County in a special election bond referendum on Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2002.
When the county Board of Elections finished its tally that night, the referendum had lost by 82 votes.
However, the next day it was discovered that the “yes” and “no” votes from Green Creek Precinct 9 had been reversed. The bond had won by 44 votes.
This odd reversal brought howls of protest from bond opponents. Hearings were scheduled. The controversy was boiling, when, a week later, the Board of Elections dropped another shoe. Board of Elections chairman Ellis Fincher Sr. announced that there were 174 voters whose votes were, somehow, just lost.
Elections supervisor Dale Edwards surmised that poll workers had mistakenly left the “activator” device plugged into the Votronic machines when the voters were casting their ballots, thus rendering their votes unrecorded. By the middle of March, 2002 the N.C. Board of Elections had ordered a new election. It was Gore v. Bush all over again.
The controversy rolled on, like an unattended toothache.
The Polk County Board of Education had in April, 2000 begun its full court press to address overcrowding issues in Polk County Schools, unfortunately unveiling a $12 million plan at the same time both the county and state were facing budget crises.
Every school in the county was impacted by the 27% growth Polk County experienced in the 1990s, Supt. Susan McHugh pointed out. Twelve new mobile classrooms had been installed around the county at a sunk cost of $400,000.
Polk Central School, serving students from kindergarten through 8th grade, was busting at the seams. Students there had to eat lunch in the courtyard for lack of cafeteria space and had to take turns trying to get into the bathrooms.
The school board was concerned about meeting the 2003 deadline for using or losing its $3.2 million share of a statewide school bond referendum.
The pressure was on. Nonetheless, many citizens resisted.
“Buildings do not educate children,” they said, “people do.” The school board, many said, should simply use the $3.2 million in hand to construct new classrooms on the various campuses, and quit building new “education palaces.”
McHugh countered that adding classrooms at Polk Central, the most over-crowded of all the schools, would just make the situation there even worse. To build additions, Polk Central playgrounds and parking lots would have been lost. Even then, she said, “you will still have the same (insufficient) gymnasium, the same traffic problems, the same (insufficient) cafeteria.”
“You cant solve the problems at Polk Central with $2 million to $3 million,” school board chairman Geoff Tennant said, “and if you do not reduce the overcrowding at Polk Central, nothing we do is going to make any difference.”
The school board argued that combining Tryon Middle and Polk Centrals middle grades in a new, consolidated middle school could provide the key to solving the overcrowding puzzle across the county.
But how to pay for it? The board of education first proposed a lease-purchase in March, 2001 but the county board of commissioners were split 3-2 on that idea. Without unanimous county support, state legislators, whose backing was needed for a state bill to grant Polk County lease-purchase authority, balked.
So by April, 2001 a bond referendum was on the table. In September, 2001, the Polk County Board of Commissioners by a 4-1 vote set a $15.5 million referendum for a special election in February, 2002. The county estimated that a tax increase of 7.3 cents would be needed in 2003-2004, when the bond payments began coming due.
Polk County Schools in April 2000 had purchased a 50.4-acre tract on Peniel Road for the middle school. The idea of a new school and school traffic coming to the rural, Peniel neighborhood was controversial. As the referendum approached, in order to tamp down those concerns, the school board announced a “suitable” alternative site had been found on Hwy. 108.
By late 2001, McHugh and the school board were in full campaign mode, presenting the overcrowding case with charts, graphs and pictures, through every means possible, at least twice a day.
Still one county commissioner, scores of voters and even a school board member or two kept voicing reservations. A few dozen amateur, citizen school planners offered a variety of “more sensible, less costly” alternatives. The issue was confusing.
After the botched election in February, the bond referendum finally came to a vote again in September, 2002 in conjunction with the delayed state primaries. Voters this time rejected the bond referendum, by a margin of 284 votes.
With no other alternative, school officials continued to make the case that “the children” were suffering.
By the following winter, 2003, the county commissioners finally reached a consensus at their annual retreat to go forward without putting the issue to the voters again. They would seek state authority to borrow money for a new, consolidated middle school using the states Certificates of Participation (COPS) program.
A few bond opponents cried foul, but after three years the fight was gone.
It was soon announced that the middle school land would be part of a new “county campus.”
“Were talking about having a campus that should be multi-generational and multi-use,” said county manager Karim Shihata.
In March, 2003, the school board put its Peniel Road land up for sale. In April, 2003, the county began considering a 95-acre property along Fox Mountain Road. A storm arose in that neighborhood.
Finally, in May, 2003, everyone learned that the new county campus would be located on Hwy. 108 after the county bought 149 acres next to the former Stonecutter plant.
Even then, the matter was not quite settled. The school board in November, 2003, for a few minutes at least, rejected their own plan because it did not include public water and sewer. Shihata and the board hoped the county campus water and sewer system would be the nucleus of a new county water system, an issue which had become a controversy all its own.
For awhile Polk County did negotiate with Columbus to extend its water lines, but each side claimed bad faith. Finally, the county decided to provide water and sewer to the new school using its own facilities.
In December, 2003, the county approved $14 million in COPS financing for a new, consolidated middle school. Ground was broken in July, 2004.
By August, 2005 a new superintendent, Bill Miller, was giving tours of the new, high tech Polk County Middle School as workmen were rushing to finish in time for students and teachers to set up shop for the 2005-2006 school year.
Over the course of the decade, Tryon Middle was closed and became the home of Tryon Arts & Crafts. The remaining schools across the county each received renovations and additions.
School overcrowding issues ebbed away as the new facilities came on line and the countys population growth slowed to a crawl.


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