The facts about the Highlands Renovation/Pre-K Project

By Kim Lewicki & Brittney Lofthouse

The article in the May 11 edition entitled “Shearl disappoints but asks for patience” solicited comments and misinformation that was disseminated on Facebook.

Misinformation is not only dangerous, but it tends to spawn more misinformation which somehow these days becomes fact.

Hopefully, the following will clear up some of the misinformation that is circulating.

Commissioner John Shearl, who was elected this past November has made himself available to his constituents recently – first at the April 20 Highlands Town Board meeting to defend the county commission’s stance on the Highlands Renovation/Pre-K project (see, again at a community meeting at the Rec Park, Thursday, April 27, which was reported in the May 4 edition (see and again at the May 9 county commission meeting as reported in the May 11 edition (see

Each of those meetings were recorded by the news media and by citizens – at the Highlands Town Board, at the community meeting and at the May 9 County Commission meeting.

The following will clear up the misinformation being circulated about what Commissioner Shearl said in recordings as well as where the county and the school board stand — and has stood for years – regarding Pre-K education within the county’s school system.

A Facebook post stated: “The first PreK was started in 2011.” 

That is false. While the Macon County Board of Education is currently unable to verify the exact start date of pre-kindergarten classes within the Macon County School System, according to an article entitled “School Days Start” published in the Franklin Press on August 29, 2006, East Franklin Elementary School operated a Pre-K classroom with 12 students enrolled and South Macon Elementary School with 18 students enrolled in what was called the “More at Four Program,” which was the name of the state’s prekindergarten program prior to the name changing to the current NCPreK. 

Also posted: “There are 5 Pre-K classrooms now in Macon County – 90 students, out of 1,900 Pre-K age kids in Macon County.” 

This statement is misleading. 

There are currently five Pre-K classrooms within Macon County Schools – not in all of Macon County. Other facilities, such as Macon Program for Progress also have Pre-K classrooms serving the county’s estimated 1,900 Pre-K age children. Their enrollment includes 150 preschool children; Highlands Community Child Development Center enrollment includes 15 and The Gordon Center enrollment includes 16 students.

In that same post it was said: “69 are public-paid and 21 are private-pay.” 

Those numbers reflect the number of private-pay Pre-K students in the school system’s Pre-K classes, which is 21 and the number of publicly funded Pre-K spots which is 69. 

However, the publicly funded Pre-K sports are not funded through local, county tax dollars, but rather are part of the state’s NCPreK program, which serves low-income students or students with disabilities. 

Again, in that post, it was said: Out of the five existing Pre-K classrooms never has the county commissioners been involved in these Pre-Ks. They have been done solely by the school system.”

This is categorically false. 

Under NC General Statute, county governments are responsible for funding the construction of school buildings – which is all the school board and specifically board member Hilary Wilkes and citizens were requesting at the community meeting held April 27, not “program” funding, which, according to the recording, Commissioner Shearl appeared to be referring to at the May 9 County Commission meeting.

When both South Macon Elementary School and Cartoogechaye Elementary School elected to include prekindergarten classes within the elementary school, they did so within the existing footprint of the schools, which were previously built and funded by the county commission. Therefore, it was the school board’s decision to use existing space within those two elementary schools to establish prekindergarten programs within the public school system following the 2002 state initiative to introduce the “More at Four” prekindergarten program. 

Consequently, when Iotla Valley Elementary School was constructed in 2010, the design plans and scope of work for the new construction included identifying space for prekindergarten classrooms prior to being built. 

Therefore, when the county approved the project plans for the Iotla Valley Elementary School, they specifically discussed the need to include space for Pre-K – and provided the funding necessary for Pre-K space to be included at that school. 

Also, the latest six-classroom addition at South Macon includes two new classrooms for Pre-K with a dedicated drop-off and playground. which the county funded.

Commissioner Shearl has said he never promised funding for the Highlands Renovation/Pre-K Project, but he did promise a conversation with the commission. The public had hoped to be privy to that conversation because according to the recorded transcript from the community meeting, it appeared that conversation would be had and possibly more done regarding the request to complete Phases 2 & 3 of the project. 

“I will promise you tonight. I will have a conversation with LS3P [the Highlands Expansion/Pre-K architects] tomorrow. I will find out what phase of this contract before we have to go further into … once you go to the 3rd phase of this contract then you are getting into deciding on when those doors and everything else and then it goes back to bids,” said Commissioner Shearl in the recording.

“So, I will have a conversation with them. I will also have a conversation with my fellow commissioners, and I will express to them exactly what the people of Highlands are asking for.

“It seems to me like you are asking for $150,000 to finish Phase 2 or Phase 3 of this contract with no path moving forward. Is that what you are asking?”

To which everyone said: “Yes!”

“OK, I will have this conversation with my fellow commissioners tomorrow, but I will tell you this. There is no guarantee that the funding will be there to complete this project.”

Highlands School Board representative Hilary Wilkes said:

“I did talk to the architect yesterday so I can save you a phone call. What we need are Phase 2 and Phase 3. Phase 1 is complete. You go through Phase 2 — Phase 2 is actually the design/development — and Phase 3 is the construction document and bid readiness. So, Phase 2 and Phase 3 and I believe that’s around $150,000.

“Thank you, John,” she continued, “for agreeing to trying to move that forward for us. But I will save you that phone call. We need Phase 2 and Phase 3 going ahead and I think I can say the school board is wholeheartedly behind that and again, we can’t get anywhere if we don’t start walking. So, let’s do it.”

To which Shearl replied:

“There again, I am going to have a conversation with LS3P and my fellow commissioners and see if we can get back on board for Phase 2 and Phase 3 and design phase of the expansion of Highlands School and the Pre-K project. And from that point, I will get a consensus from my fellow commissioners, and you will see action in our next county commission meeting May 9.

“You are my constituents. I represent you and I will do it with every ounce of energy I have in my body. I am one vote of a board of five. Without their support we can’t go anywhere.

“That’s my promise to you and I’m sorry it took so long to get that promise out but there again, I can’t promise you anything with my commissioners, but we will have that discussion and I will do my part.”

Completing phases 2 and 3 would make the Highlands Renovation/Pre-K Project “shovel ready,” which would qualify it for funding from the state or possibly funding through grants. If it’s not “shovel ready” nothing can happen in that regard. 

Commissioner Shearl may have had that conversation with his fellow commissioners, but those conversations were not held during the public session, so citizens at the May 9 meeting didn’t hear anything about Highlands being discussed among board members.

Based on his promise made at the community meeting that “You will see action at our next community commission meeting May 9,” citizens expected to hear something. 

What they heard was a soliloquy regarding funding for Pre-K programs, nothing about funding for the completion of Phase 2 and 3 of the architect plans which would cost about $150,000.

The money for all phases of the architect plan — $329,000 – was voted on and budgeted for in October of 2022 and about $35,000 was paid for Phase 1 of the plan.

However, once the new board took office, it cancelled the remaining architect phases and put the remaining money in the county’s General Fund, where it sits today.

The School Board and Highlands citizens simply want Phase 2 and Phase 3 of the architect plans completed for the approximate cost of $150,000 so the Highlands Renovation/Pre-K project can be “shovel ready” should funding come available.

Instead, at the May 9 commission meeting Commissioner Shearl said: “I am your representative. I will do everything, everything I can and I will give you every ounce of my energy to represent you. The biggest thing since our meeting is that I have had conversations with the board of education and also there has been communications with the state leadership in education and so I think there is a lot of information we are trying to gather through this Pre-K and everything as a whole. And how it is funded and everything else. And hopefully we can get to the bottom of this for all the school systems for the Pre-K needs. But all I ask you is for patience. I am working, we are working, we are working for everybody. We are going to try to do this to benefit our children and the working families in Macon County. So please just give us patience and a little time.”

That statement confused Highlanders, because there was no open discussion between the commissioners as insinuated at the April 27 meeting, and it sounded like Commissioner Shearl was looking for “program” funding not “project” funding. 

It’s “project” funding that is needed – specifically about “$150,000 that is sitting unencumbered in the county’s General Fund.

Wilkes said a joint meeting between the Board of Commission and the Board of Education is in the works during which she and her board members hope a discussion will be had.

“I’m glad the conversation is still on the table, and I hope that we will have movement on this issue sooner rather than later.”

In addition, throughout the April community meeting, Commissioner Shearl kept referring to Pre-K as childcare. Citizens and those who work in that field, tried to set him straight.

Both Bonnie Potts, Director of the Highlands Literacy & Learning Center and Demitra Passmore of the HCCDC program said Early Childhood Education is not childcare, and though important, referring to it as such somehow diminishes the importance of early childhood education. 

Studies have shown that attending Pre-K programs helps ensure students will excel not only in Kindergarten but during their entire school experience.

However, in a post last week once again daycare was lumped in with Pre-K education and suggested it is not the scope or authority of the county commission but instead that of the school system. “This is a school-related matter not a commissioner matter,” read the post.

However, the Macon County Comprehensive Plan says otherwise. 

The purpose of the Economic Development element of the Macon County Comprehensive Plan is to make recommendations necessary to maintain a healthy, vibrant and sustainable economy. The county’s plan, which was adopted and approved by the county identifies the economic impact of ensuring the sustainability of preschool. 

Under the Benefits of Early Childhood Education section of the Comprehensive Plan, it says that children having quality pre-school and early learning experiences are well prepared for the school system. 

The plan specifically identifies the county’s responsibility to act by recommending, and to encourage the local government to provide on-going support and assistance as needed for the Early Childhood Education industry in Macon County, now and in the future.

The section concludes that the goal is to eliminate the current shortage in the preschool capacity and to stimulate and maintain a healthy local growth rate.

Leave a Reply