Banoak residents want to retain school

Catawba County Schools officials say relocating Banoak Elementary School will solve a host of pending issues in the Foard area.

They say by relocating the school to a nearby vicinity, CCS can ease overcrowding problems at Mountain View and Blackburn elementary schools, and remove students from a current Banoak building in desperate need of improvements.

However, the relocation could cause the current Banoak School to be no more — something surrounding residents have something to say about.

“Banoak is like family,” Banoak graduate and resident Brenda White told the CCS Board of Education last week. “Banoak School is the cornerstone of the community. It’s near and dear to my heart.”

The original Banoak School was established in the 1920s by merging two schools together — Bandys and Oak Hill. Additions were made to the school in the 1930s, and the most recent renovations occurred in the late 1960s and 1970s, according to Banoak’s website.

The school, which residents call the “center” of the small community, is a historical landmark to most Catawba County citizens and has even been featured in the famous paintings of folk artist Arie Taylor.

School officials started pondering a potential Banoak move to address increasingly prominent overcrowding issues at other area schools.

As the Mountain View area and communities around Hickory have grown throughout the past 10 years, the student populations at Blackburn and Mountain View elementary schools have surged. Currently, Blackburn is over capacity by about 100 students, which are numbers similar to Mountain View’s overcrowding issue, said CCS Superintendent Glenn Barger.

By building a new school in the Foard area, school officials hope to pool some of the population from Blackburn, Mountain View and the current Banoak Elementary School.

New school construction would also allow CCS to avoid paying for needed renovations to the current Banoak school building last renovated more than 50 years ago. Barger said some of the issues stem from the school's septic system, which is currently located across N.C. 10 on leased property. Other issues revolve around small classrooms and safety specifications that don’t meet modern requirements.

“If they want their children to have the same opportunities as children in some of our other schools, this is the only way we can see to make that happen,” Barger said.

But a long list of Banoak parents, graduates and community members say moving the school isn’t the only option. White and other spokespeople for the “Don’t Move Banoak School” movement have suggested that school officials use land surrounding Banoak to expand the school and make necessary sewage and other renovations.

At the school board’s Feb. 13 meeting, White even suggested adjacent properties where land owners were willing to sell.

Barger and Assistant Superintendent Steve Demiter have reviewed those properties, but say they do not meet building and safety requirements, qualifications, needs or make good financial sense.

If the school system kept Banoak open and opened a new school, CCS would add a 29th school to its system and have to fund new teachers, administrators and a new building. It would also have to pay for million-dollar renovations to the existing Banoak, Barger said.

“I cannot in good conscience make a recommendation to keep Banoak open and make another school,” Barger said.

In the end, the decision if, and where, a new Banoak School will be located lies with the school board. Board members have not taken any formal action on the project yet, but have asked Barger, Demiter and other school officials to look at potential sites.

Barger said officials have not pinpointed a site for the proposed school yet, but says they are searching within a two-mile radius of the existing Banoak School. He said they hope to identify a property within the next six to seven months.

Catawba County has budgeted about $15 million for the “Foard-area school” project — funds that should be available in July of the 2014-15 school calendar year, Demiter said.

“The board is considering all their options and exploring the best way to serve the students at Banoak,” said CCS Board Chairwoman Joyce Spencer. “Obviously, Banoak has some capital needs. We are also addressing the issues of overcrowding at Blackburn and Mountain View.

At this point, it is exploration and trying to make a determination if building a new elementary school in Banoak is the answer.”

‘Don’t Move Banoak School’

Chasity Abernethy says she wants her children to graduate from the Banoak she remembered growing up.

She said it would be a shame to move a school with a firm foundation in the community, a “landmark” that the community is built upon.

“It’s the school where their father went and where there grandfather went, and I would like to see it stay there,” Abernethy said. “Banoak is a really good school where it’s at.”

Abernethy said the best solution is for the school system to divide the $15 million budgeted for the project and divide it into three for separate renovations to the existing Banoak, Blackburn and Mountain View elementary schools.

John and Elaine Wyant also oppose a relocation.

“It’s a good area for everybody to go together. It’s a close-knit family school because it is small now,” Wyant said. “We care that it stays at the same place.”

School board member Charlie Wyant, who lives in the Foard area, is also against the move, but is considering all the options presented to the board.

He said if the system could attain land in the area, he would like to see the school stay where it is.

“I think that Banoak still has a lot of opportunity to give our kids an education,” Wyant said. Yes, we do need land and there needs to be some renovations, but I am against pulling Banoak School east, further away from the upper end of the county.”