VALLE CRUCIS — Approximately 60 to 70 people filled the Valle Crucis School gymnasium on Sept. 3, when people spoke both in favor of and in opposition to the proposed placement of a new Valle Crucis School.
The Watauga County Board of Education and Watauga County Board of Commissioners hosted the joint meeting to ask for public input on a possible site for a new school that is located one-quarter mile from the existing school. The property is situated along Broadstone Road between the Mast Farm Inn and the Mast Store Annex, and has been referred to as the Hodges property.
The Board of Education entered into a contract in March for the $1,105,000 property by allocating funds from its existing fund balance. The contract for the 14.4-acre tract of land is being made with Joy Pritchett, Gay Isaacs and Roy Hodges Jr., according to Watauga County Schools. In June, Watauga County entered into a contract for the 3.36 acres that is next to the existing Valle Crucis School known as the Valle Landing property. At that time, County Manager Deron Geouque said the land could be used as a back-up plan for the new school as well.
A website containing an open letter and petition was posted on July 26 by a few people with concerns about the movement of the school impacting the Valle Crucis historic district and neighboring businesses. The letter calls for the officials to build a school on the site the school currently sits on.
The new structure would replace the current 82-year-old Valle Crucis School building that has presented problems to the Watauga County Schools system over the years. WCS Superintendent Scott Elliott started the event with a presentation that addressed the issues of the aging school, considerations WCS has taken into account when searching for land, the due diligence testing process of the Hodges property and program needs.
Elliott explained that in 2017, the school board commissioned a facilities study of all of its schools with the help of architectural firm Clark Nexsen. The study identified two schools — Hardin Park and Valle Crucis — that would be more cost effective to replace rather than to renovate. Chad Roberson, an architect with Clark Nexsen, was also at the meeting and presented information and work from his firm.
The main issues with the facility are flooding, traffic flow and a growing school population. When looking at the work orders for the school’s maintenance crew, Elliott said he counted 17 instances in the last 15 years when staff had to address issues of flooding — nine of these were in the last seven years.
When nearby Dutch Creek crests its banks, water often finds its way into the school. Elliott showed several photos of water covering the school’s property as well as inside school hallways and classrooms. Students are moved around the school away from the water, and mold remediation takes place. Elliott added that $25,000 was spent last year alone to remediate classrooms that were impacted by flood waters.
A resident who spoke against the Hodges site was Lyle Schoenfeldt, the former owner of the Mast Farm Inn and chair of the steering committee behind the online petition. Schoenfeldt shared concerns about the land being in the floodplain, since only 1.5 acres of the 14.4-acre Hodges property is out of the floodplain.
According to Elliott, 1.57 acres of the current school site is outside of the floodplain. He also said the floodplain maps are based on elevations without consideration of the location of the creek or river. The existing school site is flooded on a regular basis due to the location of Dutch Creek.
“Not only is the Hodges site on average five feet higher than the current school location, it is far away from Dutch Creek,” Elliott said.
The day following the public meeting, Elliott said WCS would maximize the space on the Hodges property to situate the building in a way so that as much of the building as possible is out of the floodplain. All 14.4 acres are usable for school purposes, such as fields and playgrounds, and approximately 5 acres is more than sufficient for the footprint of the school, he said.
Elliott assured that officials could build on land in the floodplain with mitigation, such as ensuring the building is at least two feet above base flood elevation. During the meeting, Roberson displayed a few examples of how a building could be placed on the property — including one story and two story options. Elliott said he would prefer a two-story building to minimize permeable surface and foundation construction that would need to be done.
“We certainly aren’t going to build a school that we believe would continue to flood,” Elliott said.
Schoenfeldt added that the location was “lousy” because it would interfere with the historic character of Valle Crucis, cause traffic issues and have negative impacts to the economy with the movement of the school. Gannon Tipton, a longtime Watauga resident, said he found most of the concerns expressed in the petition “already exist, are over-exaggerated or unrealistic.” He also said he believed the campaign was started by a select few concerned about their businesses.
“This appears to be nothing more than a common case of ‘not in my backyard,’” Tipton said. “Personally, I find it shameful that some insist on placing an unnecessary burden on children or suggest that the health, safety and education of our youth should take a backseat to the business interest of a select few.”
Schoenfeldt said the school could be built on other identified locations. Schoenfeldt said his favorite comment left on the petition site asked, “What kind of message do we want to send to the many students who will go to the new school?”
In response to this question, Chase Ambler said, “I think the message we want to send them is that ‘you’re everything.’”
Ambler said he lives directly across the river from the Hodges property and has children who have attended Valle Crucis School. He said he lost count how many times the school flooded while his children attended there.
“Squeegeeing, mopping and sandbagging shouldn’t be a chore for the teachers and principal,” Ambler said. “While neither site is particularly good, the Hodges site is 10 times better than this.”
While Ambler said he didn’t mind having a school as a neighbor, other nearby citizens disagreed. Bill Pressly said he lives directly next to the proposed site, and said a new institutional building would have a huge impact on those living close by. He suggested that new sewage and water systems would be needed, security lighting for the school, constant noise and traffic, increased water runoff and construction disturbance would impact neighbors and nearby streams.
“It’s beyond reason that this site with all of its shortcomings would even be considered,” Pressly said.
Elliott said with LED lights the school could focus the lights in certain direction as well as control the color and intensity of the light. As for noise and other disturbances, he said the construction of the school would be a short-term situation. He added that WCS would hope to improve direct public access to Watauga River, possibly create buffer zones to protect the river and work closely with a local river keeper to improve stormwater runoff.
Frank Barry said his family has lived in the area for a long time, and expressed concerns about traffic and water drainage issues. He questioned if the school board had looked outside of Valle Crucis for property, and why the school wouldn’t be centrally located to the students who attend there. He said it seemed like students going to Valle Crucis School were more located to the south of the area. Several other residents asked this question as well.
“If we want to keep a school in Valle Crucis, there are very few if any other pieces of property large enough and suitable enough for a school that is also affordable,” Elliott said. “There are other properties available, but not which we can afford.”
Although others in attendance voiced the importance of keeping the school in Valle Crucis, such as Debby Glover. As a fourth-grade teacher at the school, Glover said the school — alongside the community’s park, churches and businesses — is a sense of pride for the community. She added that she has cleaned mildew out of her classroom and watched mud come up through a sink. The current school is not a viable learning environment, and she said the community should put the students first.
“I think if you think a school is an invasion in any way … come and spend an afternoon on our playground and listen to those little voices and see those children play,” Glover said. “It should be an honor to have the school in Valle Crucis.”
Mary Mast, a retired Valle Crucis School teacher, said she would rather have a school on that site than other “undesirable uses of the property.” She said the property would likely not go unused and be sold to someone else. She also added that the historic district could not decide what the land is used for, but rather have input on what the outside of the building could look like.
Each member of the school board and county commissioners were given a chance at the end of the meeting to comment on the matter. School board member Gary Childers said that he is committed to do all that’s reasonable to design and build a school that is a first-class educational facility and an asset to the community as well as be a good neighbor to all surrounding families and businesses.
School board member Steve Combs discussed how he went through a similar process when WCS was building Watauga High School several years ago. Back then, Combs traveled across the state to examine new facilities and talk with school administrators, teachers and parents — all of which would advise building on a separate property and not on a current school property.
Adding to this, school board member Jay Fenwick said he wants to minimize the impact on students, and wouldn’t want “any class to graduate from some other school because we didn’t have a place for them here because we were constructing that year.” Fenwick also said since a school has been present in Valle Crucis for 200 years, the school should stay in the community.
As a Valle Crucis School alumni, Commissioner Perry Yates said the children need to be put first in the community’s mind. He also added that the commissioners, school board and architects have an obligation to keep the dignity of the community and design a school that fits into the area.
“This existing place where the school is now, cannot handle another school,” Yates said. “A lot of times we have to make sacrifices monetarily, personally and our own feelings and put them aside for the betterment of many — not a few, but many.”
Elliott said he was appreciative of the community members who attended the meeting and that those who spoke were constructive and civil. He added that WCS has received a permit from the state for the drilling of a well, which could take place in the next two to three weeks. If this is successful, the due diligence period would be completed and the board of education would decide at that time whether or not to proceed with the purchase of the Hodges property.