Plans laid for new Franklin High School
The first class to graduate from the current Franklin High School did so in 1952. Back then, there were fewer buildings and less developed grounds, but 70 years later, much of the high school remains largely the same.
Now, Macon County is coming together to build a new high school and create a legacy they can be proud of.
“It’s time to have this discussion,” said County Commission Chairman Jim Tate. “It’s time for Macon County to give our kids what they deserve, an exceptional education facility.”
More than 150 people attended a joint meeting of the Macon County Board of Commissioners and the Macon County Board of Education on Tuesday, July 26, to listen to plans for the new facility and provide feedback.
Ultimately, the boards decided to proceed with building a new school in the same location instead of renovating Franklin High School’s existing buildings. This was the recommendation of architects from LS3P, the firm responsible for creating preliminary plans for both options. The two boards had jointly entered into a $605,000 contract in December 2021 with LS3P for a comprehensive facility plan, said County Manager Derek Roland.
The plan lays out the capital investment needed to bring all existing structures on the Franklin High School campus up to a 50-year standard and compares these costs and benefits to the construction of a new school. In order to receive community input throughout this process, LS3P created a project committee made up of members of the community.
“We were able to listen, and we were able to take in what they said,” said Paul Boney, senior vice president and K-12 practice leader at LS3P.
“If we can come together and support each other in building something that future generations can benefit from, and if we can leave that legacy for future generations to come, then we can all take pride in what we’ve done for those students to come,” said Callie Rover, a rising senior at FHS who is on the project committee created by LS3P.
The makeup of the Franklin High School campus presented several problems for renovation. The campus has seven main buildings. Even with full renovations, a campus made up of this many separate parts, each with their own entrances and exits, is inherently less safe for students and staff in the case of an intruder.
“We counted over a hundred exterior doors between buildings that students pass through each day, which require some level of security between classes so that we don’t have unauthorized visitors throughout our campus,” said Emily Kite, senior project manager at LS3P.
The number of buildings also creates ADA accessibility issues that are is compounded by the differing levels on which the buildings are situated. Additionally, several buildings have different plumbing, electrical and even emergency alarm systems that would need to be consolidated.
“We’ve got seven different first floors throughout this campus. We’ve got all these roofs and all these exterior walls; it isn’t good for energy efficiency,” said Jamie Henderson, an architect with LS3P.
According to designs presented by LS3P, a full renovation of Franklin High School’s campus would fall short by 89,000 square feet for the target space needed for a 1,200-student school.
“In addition to fixing and renovating buildings, we would also need to add square footage in order to do two things; one, to align ourselves with the program that we want for the high school, but also to compare it against a new building that would also contain that kind of square footage with those kinds of programs,” said Kite.
The alternative to renovating the existing campus, and LS3P’s official recommendation, was to build a new high school in the same location. This will involve consolidating the school into one main building to the east of the current school buildings, on what is now a practice field.
Plans still have to be finalized, but the new school will likely have one wing with common spaces — auditorium, gymnasiums, cafeteria and administration offices — and a second wing that would house all academic classrooms. Between these two wings is space for an outdoor courtyard.
“It’s important to create a secure campus, but also provide the things that these students are used to, of which outdoor space is one of them. We’ve tried to incorporate that into the design itself,” said Henderson.
The plans also calls for raising the elevation of the football stadium by about five feet to combat drainage issues that have been plaguing the school for some time. This will allow for level access between the first floor of the school and the top floor of the football stadium.
“We’re completely resolving these ADA issues across the entirety of the site and within creating a unified campus,” said Henderson.
One of the reasons LS3P recommended constructing a new school instead of renovating current buildings is the ability to complete the project in three phases that allow for uninterrupted access to academic buildings during the normal school year.
The first phase would involve raising and constructing the new football stadium, during the second phase builders would construct the new school where the practice field currently sits, and during the third phase they will demolish the old school buildings and install the new parking lot and multi-purpose field. This third phase would ideally happen during the summer, allowing a seamless transition between students learning in the old school one year, and in the new school the next. LS3P laid out a timeline in which all three phases could be completed by fall 2026.
The total cost for the new school is estimated at $118,420,233. The total cost estimate for renovating the current campus is $111,059,378. Both projects include the cost of the new sports stadium which is estimated at $14,175,455.
“We have completed our planning study and based on the facts and based on the planning report and the information we have received, it is our recommendation to the school board and the county commission that we build a new high school facility and stadium for Franklin,” said Paul Boney, senior vice president and K-12 practice leader at LS3P.
Nine members of the public spoke during the meeting with seven strongly in favor of the project.
“When we talk about, if you build it they will come, I am one of those who truly believes that will happen,” said Molly Phillips. “What I mean is that we are going to attract quality teachers. They are going to see that this community invests in its education and in our children.”
Conversations about the need for a new high school started more than 10 years ago, but back then the county couldn’t afford it. Now, Macon County is in a financially sound space that may allow them to construct the new school.
“Macon County sits in the best financial position that Macon County ever has,” said Tate. “I’m excited about that. There’s a lot of hard work and I’m ready to see it move forward. That’s why I’m excited about this.”
According to Mitch Brigulio of Davenport and Company, the county’s financial advisor, Macon County has a strong credit profile in part due to its healthy fund balance, which bodes well for its ability to obtain the best interest rates available if borrowing money for capital projects.
From 2016 through 2021 the county has maintained a structurally balanced budget.
“By that we mean the county’s operating revenues coming in have been equal to or exceeded the operating expenses going out,” said Brigulio. “The county has maintained a structurally balanced budget every year, has not necessarily overextended itself from year to year.”
The county has an informal policy to maintain a minimum of at least 25% unassigned fund balance. Over the past several years that percentage has been closer to 40 and 50%; however, in 2021 it reached over 60%.
As of June 30, the county has $25 million in outstanding debt obligations. Most of this is associated with the most recent middle school financing. All existing county debt is scheduled to be paid off in 20 years. Brigulio estimates that the county would need to take on an additional $160 million in debt to finance the high school and other capital projects in Macon County.
“You’re starting from a position of strength when looking to fund these capital projects and that provides opportunities going forward,” said Brigulio. “We would say the county has debt capacity. It’s reasonable for the county to be looking at debt financing as a potential tool to fund its capital improvement going forward with the level of projects the county is considering.”
This fall, Macon County will have the chance to vote on a quarter-cent sales tax. This would raise its sales tax from 6.75 to 7 cents per dollar, with all additional revenue from the increase going back to Macon County. It’s estimated this would generate just over $2 million in additional annual revenue that would go towards funding the capital projects plan.
Without the quarter-cent sales tax or any other additional revenue, the county could fund about $15 million of the school project. With the quarter-cent sales tax, and no other additional revenue, the county could fund roughly $40.5 million.
To make up the difference in cost, the county will need to raise the property tax rate. With each penny on the tax rate generating about $1 million, the quarter-cent sales tax could offset 2 cents on the tax rate. If commissioners decide to raise the rate early, around 2024 to begin paying off the project, it is estimated they would need to increase taxes by $0.059. If commissioners decide to wait and raise the money later, property taxes would need to increase by $0.084. These estimates are assuming the quarter-cent sales tax passes. If it does not, any tax jump would increase by about two cents. An upcoming countywide property revaluation could also affect these numbers.
Several commissioners and board of education members pleaded with the crowd that night to vote for the quarter-cent sales tax when it appears on the ballot in November.
“We can start getting a quarter of a cent off everybody that passes through our county and buys a coke or a tank of gas or whatever it might be, so I hope everybody here will support that for our kids,” said Tate.
Another funding source available for the new high school project is the Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund, which was created to assist counties with critical school building needs and comes from the NC Education Lottery. Grant funds are available to eligible counties for construction of new school buildings and additions, repairs and renovations of existing school facilities. Macon County Schools applied for a grant for Franklin High School this year and did not receive funding but will apply again next fiscal year. The maximum award for a high school project is $50 million, which could significantly affect the cost to local taxpayers for the project.
Both boards voted unanimously in favor of accepting the recommendation of the architectural firm to build a new high school at the site of the current Franklin High School and to continue in the existing contract with LS3P. Moving forward the county will have to negotiate a contract with LS3P for the next steps in the design process.
Those attending the meeting showed strong support for the project.
“I attended school here, went through it and was very grateful for the education I got,” School Board Chairman Jim Breedlove. “But as time has progressed, we’re also talking about facilities that are outdated and it’s time to have some due consideration for what is best, not for us, but for the children coming through.”