#036;600,000 loan hangs in the balance

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 18, 2006

JACKSON – The future of the Northampton County Schools’ administrative building still hangs in the balance.

The school system, represented by Assistant Superintendent Phil Matthews, requested a $600,000 short-term loan from the Northampton County Commissioners on Monday, but were held at bay until further study can be done about the issue.

That resolution didn’t sit well with Commissioner James C. Boone (D-3rd) who said the board routinely handled such matters without question, but had chosen to pepper Matthews with questions and not take action.

Matthews made his presentation during the board’s regular second meeting of the month, asking they consider loans to the district that would allow them to complete the $1.8 million project.

After hearing Matthews’ request, Chairwoman Virginia D. Spruill (D-2nd) said there were concerns from County Manager Wayne Jenkins in regards to the request and called on Jenkins to clear up the situation.

Jenkins first asked about the sale of the old Gaston Middle School and Matthews told him there was an option on the property, but no final sale.

The county manager then questioned how the school board would repay the loan, citing there was no ability to use the projected $451,000 in lottery money for an administrative building.

Matthews said the school district would repay the loan with the capital outlay money provided by the commissioners and use the lottery funds to complete the capital outlay projects.

Jenkins also pointed out a discrepancy in the $445,000 planning allotment for capital outlay and the school system’s requested amount of $579,800.

Matthews said the request was just that and if the county only supplied $445,000, the district would work within that budget.

Jenkins asked if the difference would alter being able to repay the loan and Matthews said it would not.

Commissioner James Hester (D-1st) asked where the system got the projected lottery money and Matthews said it was a planning allotment from the state.

Dr. Kathi Gibson, superintendent of Northampton County Schools, then added that she felt the lottery number was a “low-ball” figure and said the district “felt good” about getting at least that amount of funding.

Commissioner Robert V. Carter (D-4th) went back to the $130,000 difference in funding, citing that it appeared the school board would be expecting more funding.

“We would like an increase,” Matthews said, “but if it is $445,000, we will live with that. It will just mean some of the capital projects we would like to do would not be accomplished.”

Matthews then, at the request of Commissioner Fannie P. Greene (D-5th), laid out the funding of the project. He said $850,000 remains from the original bond money and the school system was appropriating $350,000 from their fund balance.

He said the district wanted a $600,000 loan from the county. It is scheduled to be paid back in five years or less. Matthews indicated terms of repayment could be worked out between the two boards and the loan could be paid off in as little as two years.

Hester asked where the money would come from if the board approved the loan and Jenkins said there were potential sources, including fund balance and local banks.

Hester then said he remembered the board’s accountant encouraging them not to take on more debt.

Spruill asked if the decision could be put off until later and was told that it was possible, but Matthews stressed cost increases were a major concern and the bid expired on May 31.

Boone wasn’t at all pleased with the thought of delay.

“The school system belongs to us,” he said. “This is a needed project. You can look at the administrative building and see it is needed.”

Boone moved to approve the loan and allow Jenkins and Finance Officer Dot Vick to come back at the next meeting with the explanation of how the process would work.

Carter said he felt the school system was satisfied and that the district’s other $200,000 wouldn’t be available until September.

Boone said, “I don’t know any other entity that comes before us we comb through like this. This is one of our children.”

Greene said the board would meet again on May 30 and then gave a report from the finance officer and county manager.

Boone retorted that the board had the information since last Thursday and could have directed the officers to do that if they wanted them to.

Carter said the group had been involved in the budget and didn’t have time to make the preparation to be ready for a vote at Monday’s meeting.

Dr. Gibson said she wanted to make sure the board understood that the working group of the board of education and county commissioners had discussed the proposal at the last meeting. That group, which she indicated included Carter, encouraged the formal presentation.

Jenkins said the group had indeed discussed the loan, but that no amount of money was attached at the time. He reiterated the fact he and Vick had been working diligently to balance the budget, but said he would bring a proposal at the next meeting.

Greene, Carter, Spruill and Hester voted to defeat Boone’s motion, but the board agreed unanimously to discuss it again May 30.