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Community Members Pack Valle Crucis School Gym for Meeting to Discuss New School Location

Commissioner John Welch opened the meeting with over 100 community members in attendance. The board of education is pictured here seated on the left and the county commissioners are seated on the right.

By Nathan Ham

Valle Crucis parents, teachers and community members, as well as elected officials, gathered for a special joint meeting between the Watauga County Commissioners and Watauga County Board of Education on Tuesday to speak their minds about the location of a new Valle Crucis School. 

The information session included data and comments from Watauga County Superintendent Dr. Scott Elliott and Clark Nexsen architect Chad Roberson. Following that, the public was invited to comment and share their thoughts either in support of the proposed location for the school or against it. 

Watauga County Superintendent Dr. Scott Elliott gave an overview of how the process got to this point. Clark Nexsen architect Chad Roberson is pictured to his left. 

“After lots of talk and lots of consideration, the priority was given to first make every effort to keep a school in Valle Crucis, whether that be on-site or a different site,” said Dr. Elliott. “I believe that a school is a place where children and families come, live and exist and we certainly want to continue to be a positive member of the community.”

Elliott added that the school system had “no intention of building what might be described as a large institutional structure.”

“We would hope to build a school that would look and feel consistent with the character and nature of the community,” he said. 

Elliott and Roberson both presented some of the issues that a new school will hope to mitigate, most importantly flooding issues that have plagued the school for so long. According to Dr. Elliott, maintenance crews have had to deal with flooding issues a total of 17 times in the last 15 years and nine times in the last seven years. (Dr. Elliott’s presentation can be found here.)

“$25,000 was spent last year in repair and mold remediation in three classrooms. Stormwater management is a huge concern for us,” Elliott said. 

Roberson said that they analyzed several possibilities for building on the current site and building on a new site, known as the Hodges Property, that the county currently has under contract. To keep the school at its current location, he highlighted the three options they tested which included adding a one-story building that would wrap around the current school, adding a two-story building and leaving the existing structure where it is or tearing down the old school and building a new two-story school on that spot. The last option would require the school to be closed down and students attend school elsewhere while the new building is constructed.

Prior to the presentations, Tuesdae Rice, the co-chair of the Valle Crucis School PTA, was grateful for having the information available to help the school PTA make their decision on where they would like to see the new school constructed. 

“We voted as a PTA two months ago and it was a majority vote in support of the new school site. I went on behalf of the PTA to the Watauga County Commissioners meeting and spoke in support of that. We have been very lucky to have Dr. Scott Elliott come to one of our PTA meetings and give us a presentation and so we feel that it is a really great option,” she said.

A large turnout of community members included 18 public speakers that were willing to take their three-minute time slots to address both boards and the public in attendance. While there was some division between the people in attendance on the location of a new school, everyone seemed to agree that building a new Valle Crucis School was imperative. 

Lyle Schoenfeldt started a petition against building the school on the Hodges Property and is the chair of the steering committee for ValleCrucis.net.

“Everyone wants a new school and they want it in Valle Crucis,” said Lyle Schoenfeldt, who started a petition and is the chair of the steering committee for ValleCrucis.net. 

The website also allows people to comment and add their thoughts online. 

“Over 380 citizens have submitted petitions and over 120 have offered comments. These comments are heartfelt and unprompted and express many concerns about the Hodges Property,” said Schoenfeldt.

Bill Pressly, a 35-year resident of Valle Crucis, voiced strong opposition to the Hodges Property as a spot for the new school. 

Bill Pressly was another community member against building the school on the Hodges Property. 

“I lived next to the proposed site and have done so for the past 35 years. The introduction of a new institutional building and all that comes with it will have a huge impact on all of us living close by,” he said. 

Pressly is concerned about the amount of the property that is in the same floodplain as the current school location as well as the construction disturbance and the light pollution from lights that will be on all night. Another concern of his revolved around the price tag for the property. 

“The proposed 14.4 acre Hodges site is under contract for $1.1 million. That’s $76,736 per acre. Tax value is only $7,416 per acre. Why is the contract for 10 times that value,” said Pressly. 

Both he and Schoenfeldt said they would like to see the appraisal for the property to help determine why the price was so high. 

Other speakers in attendance were adamant supporters of building on the new property. 

Mary Mast started the public comment period with her support for seeing a school built on the Hodges Property.

“A lot of the people making comments seem to think that the Hodges Property, which is a beautiful pasture, will remain a pasture if the school doesn’t go there. That will not happen. Now that it is known that the land is for sale, something will go there. I can think of a dozen things I don’t want to go there,” said Mary Mast. “I want that school there as protection. I don’t want some undesirable use of the property to come about. The historic district is a paper tiger with no teeth. The only thing the historic district can decide on is what the outside of the building looks like, not what it’s used for. So the historic district is no protection.”

Gannon Tipton, who has lived in Watauga County for 20 years, supports the new location and calls into question the validity of the petitions and comments from Schoenfeldt’s website. 

“On its face, the campaign appears to list some genuine and reasonable concerns. However, I found most of these concerns to be illegitimate. Most of the concerns listed either already exist, are over-exaggerated or are unrealistic. I also find it problematic that the campaign was initially promoted on what appeared to be a community Facebook page, but it really wasn’t,” Tipton said. “Comments questioning the validity of the concerns or the motivation behind the petition were quickly deleted, as were comments dismissing the petitioners’ concerns. Also, some of the more vocal critics were blocked entirely from commenting on that Facebook page, myself included.”

Tipton continued on, saying that page moderators were using words like slander and libel as a form of intimidating people with opposing viewpoints. 

“These actions by the operators of that Facebook page, combined with the misleading page name effectively promoted a false perception that most of the community was opposed to the new school location. For the longest time, those behind the campaign advocate for rebuilding the school on the current property. We saw tonight that’s probably not the best idea. I’d like to also point out that most of the concerns listed on that petition page will not be addressed by rebuilding on that site. I believe that fact alone shows the true intentions of those driving that campaign,” Tipton said. “I believe this campaign boils down to a select few putting their business interests ahead of everything else. 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 interests of a select few. Our children deserve a safe and suitable, healthy learning environment.”

Additional comments supporting the Hodge Property site for the new school came from parents, current teachers, school board members and commissioners. 

“I love my drive to Valle Crucis every day. I get to watch the students get to enjoy this beautiful environment. If you can’t have this paradise, let’s go for a paradise that’s nearby, let’s go for the next best thing let’s give that to our children and put our children first. To have the creek for creek studies, to have the beautiful land out there to play on, just to have this sweet spot, I think if you can give that to the future, that would be awesome,” said Debbie Glover, a teacher at the school for almost 30 years. “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. Our churches, our inns, our general stores and our schools are the places of pride for our communities, so I think it should be an honor to host Valle Crucis School in this area.”

Commissioner Perry Yates has been a resident of Valle Crucis and he hopes to see the school construction go forward on the new property to keep the school in the community. 

“We need to put ourselves behind and put our children in front. The existing place where the school is now cannot handle another school. This is the finest community in Watauga County. A lot of times we have to make sacrifices for the betterment of many, not of few, but of many. I challenge the community, commissioners and board of education to build the nicest school possible,” said Yates. “We don’t want something that will not fit or will not look part of the community. We want it to be a school that everyone can be proud of. Together, we can achieve great things. Divided, we just cause problems for each other and we achieve nothing.”

According to Dr. Elliott, a well-drilling permit for the Hodges Property was approved on Tuesday and is one of the final tests that need approval before continuing on with the possibility of using the property for a new school. 

Photos by Ken Ketchie

Mast addresses the crowd.
Public comments lasted for 45 minutes with a total of 18 different speakers.

Appalachian State professor Frank Barry said his biggest concern was the drainage issue and how it would affect nearby streams.