Because the cost of the project has more than doubled since the original estimate of $23 million in 2003, Harlan County High School and school officials were the target of criticism by the Kentucky Board of Education and the Lexington Herald-Leader.
State school board chairman Keith Travis suggested in a Courier-Journal report that the district should have consolidated into one of the current high schools instead of building a new facility due to declining enrollment.
"Could two of them been consolidated?" Travis asked. "Could one of them been closed and pushed into the two?"
That statement backs up speculation that the alternative to building a new school would have been to close Evarts and/or Cumberland and move the students to Cawood High School.
The Herald-Leader again bashed the project in an editorial earlier this week, criticizing the cost and suggesting the school wasn't needed due to declining enrollment.
While the original estimate may have been $23 million, it was clear to everyone involved that the school would cost quite a bit more after numerous delays.
A bid was submitted by D.W. Wilburn to build the school for $30.2 million in April 2006, and the costs grew to the estimated $41 million to $43 million for a variety of reasons outlined by school officials and backed up by the state audit.
The situation has some similarities to what happened in Lexington with the new Bryan Station High School. A Lexington Herald-Leader report from 2001 estimated that the new school would cost $30 million, compared to $17 million to $20 million for repairs.
When the new school was opened last year, the cost was listed at $43.9 million. A state official told me Thursday that the cost would likely be closer to $58 million if construction started in 2006 like Harlan County.
While the Bryan Station school was under construction, the Herald-Leader found space on its editorial page to criticize the Harlan County project as an example of outmoded thinking.
"There's little incentive for making do and adapting existing buildings," the Herald-Leader editorial stated.
But when the new Bryan Station High School opened it was trumpeted as a "sparkling, well-equipped high school" in a Herald-Leader headline, and there was not one word of criticism to be found for replacing an old school with a new school.
Perhaps the logic is that because Harlan County is a much poorer area than Fayette County, our area doesn't deserve nice, new facilities.
It's not a theory I subscribe to, but it's certainly popular in other parts of the state, which explains part of our problem over the past couple of decades. We also have ourselves to blame, but that's another column.
Improving school planning is a reasonable goal, but it's not only a Harlan County issue. Costs go up, and anyone who expected a 2003 price to be anywhere near the 2008 price isn't dealing with today's reality.
Harlan County had one chance to build its first new high school in 40-plus years, and it looks as the though the facility will be as nice as any in Kentucky when it's finished.
It's hard to put a price tag on what that could mean for Harlan County's future.
John Henson can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org