Bertie Board balks at proposal

Published 12:41 pm Saturday, August 22, 2009

WINDSOR – The possibility of building a new high school in Bertie County seems nearly non-existent.

Monday morning the Bertie County Board of Education agreed to request $25 million in additional funds from the Quality School Construction Bond (QSCB) for the purpose of constructing a new high school.

That decision came after the board had received the approval of the Bertie County Commissioners to renovate the current Bertie High School by borrowing a total of $5.23 million.

In the time between the two decisions, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction opted to release approximately $87 million in additional QSCB funds that were not sought by eligible counties.

Friday afternoon, the Bertie County Commissioners issued a press release saying the $25 million could work with other factors to cause a 20-cent tax hike and requested the school board to reconsider their actions.

“We ask the board of education to take another look at the action taken on Monday, given the fiscal impact of its proposal,” the press release stated. “With the current state of the economy, the county’s borrowing capacity, the additional expense already created by the Commissioner’s commitment last month to borrow $5.23 million, new unfunded mandates recently put on the county by the General Assembly and the current county shortfalls, the assumption of the additional debt created by borrowing another $25 million would be fiscally irresponsible.”

The commissioners further stated that, while they are willing to work with the school board to improve facilities, they will not sign or support the new QSCB application.

“As we have in the past, we stand ready to work with the board of education to improve our school facilities in any fiscally responsible and prudent manner possible,” the release read. “Because of the burden that this additional debt would place on the taxpaying citizens of Bertie County, we have unanimously determined that we cannot support or sign the new QSCB application.”

The press release reveals, however, that at least three members of the school board have already expressed their belief that the money should not be borrowed if it causes a tax increase.

Board of Education Chairwoman Emma H. Johnson said she believes there is a strong need for a new high school and felt the school board had the duty to pursue the funding, but also made it clear she supports the decision of the commissioners.

“We need a new high school and I think the commissioners see the need,” Johnson said. “That being said, if we cannot get it at this time, we cannot get it.

“We do not want to cause a tax increase for the citizens,” Johnson added. “We requested $25 million or enough to help us with our project to renovate the current high school. If we cannot get the money for the new school, it would be good to at least get enough to build the new gym as part of the renovation project.”

The resolution, which was adopted Monday, said the district would “pursue up to twenty-five million dollars ($25,000,000.00) of QSCB funding for the construction of a new high school facility, or in the alternative, the maximum amount available for the construction and renovation of facilities at the current Bertie High School and Bertie STEM School.”

Bertie school board members Rickey Freeman and Alton H. Parker echoed Johnson’s belief that when the funds became available, it was necessary to explore the alternative. They each said, however, they agreed that taxes should not be raised dramatically to build a new school.

“I think as members of the school board, it was important that we explore the opportunity that was presented to us,” Parker said. “We needed to look at it. By the same token, however, as good stewards, we do not want a substantial increase in taxes to pay for it. We know the citizens of the county cannot bear that type of burden.”

Freeman agreed.

“We obviously wanted to look at the chance to get a new high school, but we don’t want to cause an undue burden on the tax-paying citizens of Bertie County either,” Freeman said.

As for the commissioners, their press release indicates there would be no way to build the new high school without substantially raising taxes.

“Unfortunately, it would be impossible, in our opinion, based on all available information, to fund the debt repayment of $5.23 million, $25 million and the state’s new unfunded mandates without a tax increase of 20 cents or more,” the release reads. “We believe the Local Government Commission would not approve such a bond issuance without a pledge in the application to raise the tax rate to fund the repayment.”

Bertie Superintendent of Schools Dr. Chip Zullinger said he felt it was the necessary for the commissioners and the school board to work together to do the best they could with the condition of the high school.

“Right now we can build a new high school for $25 million,” Dr. Zullinger said. “Construction markets are down and we have the opportunity to borrow money at zero percent interest.

“I don’t think it is a question of if we build a new high school, but when,” he added. “If we choose the when as now, its $25 million. In five years, that could be $52 million with the cost of construction and the interest on the loan.”

He said the high school was simply one of the worst facilities in the state and would have to be replaced.

“Bertie High School is one of the two or three worst high schools in North Carolina,” the superintendent said. “The first year I was superintendent, we had to close school six times because we had to shut the facility down.”

Dr. Zullinger said it was prudent of the school board to pursue the money because it would ultimately save the taxpayers of the county paying twice what a new school would cost now.

“This is an opportunity I have never seen before in my time as a superintendent and I don’t believe we’ll see it again,” he said.

Still, Dr. Zullinger said it was the duty of the school board to make the commissioners aware of the needs and the job of the commissioners to decide when and how to fund those needs.

“The commissioners have been very supportive of us,” Dr. Zullinger said. “They know full well what they need and I believe they’ll do whatever they can.”