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N’hampton Boards discuss new high school

JACKSON — A new high school will come with a hefty cost: $19.2 million to be exact.

On Tuesday, the Northampton County Board of Commissioners sat down with the Northampton County Board of Education’s Facility Committee to get the details of building a new centrally located high school in the county. County and school board officials were joined by SFL+a Architects’ Robert Ferris, Rick Green with Firstfloor and Attorney Bob Johnson.

County Manager Wayne Jenkins reminded those in attendance the goal of the meeting was for the county to get informed about the project and to get a solid debt number so the county could move forward with its plan.

Charles Tyner, school board member and Chair of the Facilities Committee, briefed the commissioners on the need for a new high school. The school system currently has two high schools located on opposite ends of the county—East and West.

“We do have a problem in our school system with facilities,” he said. “Northampton County High School-East is in bad shape. We have had two engineering firms come out there and they have both said we should not put more money into Northampton County High School-East.”

Northampton County High School-West is a newer facility and the school system has included middle school students this year in an effort to fill that school to capacity.

“We have looked at it for over a year; we’ve been in discussion, we’ve gone around and worked with consultants, about the possibility of having a one high school in Northampton County,” he said.

Tyner said there are two reasons for a new high school, one, to provide a better education for students by gathering in one building and, two, to save the school system money.

After speaking with consultants, Tyner said the school board decided to come to the county.

“The buck stops with you,” he said to the commissioners. “We’ve done what we needed to do and that’s why we’re at this table.

The proposal from SFL+a Architects the school board selected bases a public/private partnership between the school system and Firstfloor.

Ferris said the proposal is to construct a new “green” high school that would produce more electricity than it would use. The new efficient facility would have solar panels affixed to the roof.

“This building won’t have a power bill,” he said. “Think of the competitive advantage if you decided to build this facility.”

Green said through traditional procurement, the construction of the proposed building would cost $24 million but with the suggested alternative delivery procurement from Firstfloor the price tag for the new school would be 20 percent less at $19.2 million.

The public/private partnership would have the school system purchase the site. Meanwhile, a non profit would be formed through Firstfloor and the high school would be built. Firstfloor would then lease the facility back to the school system for 40 years and the high school would eventually revert back to the school system. There would be no payment due until the building is occupied.

Green said the lease payment would run the school system approximately $1 million a year, not including utilities, insurance or property taxes.

Funding sources include $475,000 from the annual county appropriation, $150,000 from ADM (average daily membership) funds, $250,000 from North Carolina Lottery funds and an additional $125,000 of county contribution.

The $19.2 million price does not account for “soft costs” including the purchasing for new furniture.

Green noted a pot of USDA-Rural Development stimulus funds could be available for the project. Green said USDA could loan money to the non-profit to build the school.

Tyner said the sales tax funds that the school system receives will be applied to the bonds of the last two buildings they built.

Tyner also addressed the additional $125,000 in county appropriation.

“You are responsible for our facilities,” he said. “If we want to build a new first class high school, we just believe the county ought to look at least another $125,000 to help us with this new facility. …And if you don’t please don’t let that stop you today in making the decision we’re going to move forward.”

He noted the county would have to stay at the same level of monetary commitment to the schools in order for the new high school debt payment to be made.

School board member Donald Johnson noted that $125,000 over a 40 year period is $5 million.

��So what’s $5 million when you’re building a $19-20 million high school,” he said.

Jenkins asked if the $475,000 would come from the schools’ current expense or capital outlay.

Tyner said it would come from a combination of both.

Jenkins questioned if the savings on the new building would account for the $475,000.

Tyner said yes and the current expense would account for much of the amount.

Jenkins said currently, the county appropriates a total of $3.98 million to the schools of direct county tax money.

“And the additional $125,000 would be above and beyond,” he said.

“Again, don’t let that stop us…” Tyner responded.

“The point I was hoping to arrive at is that, if I understand this correctly, we’re looking at 38 to 40 year concern,” said Jenkins. “If we appropriate this to you today, what’s to say that 10 years from now, five years from now, three years from now, you come back and say, ‘We need additional money to upgrade our school system; you’re under funding us’?”

Jenkins added then the two entities are back in mediation again.

“We understand that, you know, but life is a gamble anyways,” said Tyner. “We don’t know what’s going to come 10 years from now, but our children need an education.”

Tyner added that at any time the state funds (Lottery and ADM) could stop.

“And at that point in time, the entire debt shifts to the tax payers of Northampton County,” said Jenkins.

School Board Vice Chairman Bill Little said that if the new high school was not built, substantial money would have to be put out to fix the existing facilities. An estimate of $12-14 million was given to fix NCHS-East.

The construction of the new school is estimated to take around two years and during that time school officials plan to save ADM, Lottery and annual appropriation funds to pay some of the debt if the school system runs into a bad year.

School officials said they may renegotiate after the bonds they have 12 years left on are paid off.

“Then we will have our tax money to (help) pay for the debt,” Tyner said.

Little said his board felt they would have a fairly good amount there so school officials would not need to come back to the commissioners.

“I wish that the county could be as optimistic as you are,” said Commission Vice Chair James Hester. “But down to the bottom line we have people losing their homes, we’ve got the highest jobless rate in this state in the history of the state, we’re looking at $400,000 up there that is ‘iffy’ money—the ADM and the Lottery Funds.”

Hester added that Northampton was becoming a senior citizen county and those adults rely on the little retirement and income they have.

Tyner asked for the county to provide the school board with a short range plan as to when the county could help fund the high school.

Jenkins said he would start “crunching numbers” immediately and during the month of February they would have a indicator back from the auditor and the LGC.

Jenkins asked if the school officials would consider general obligation bonds for the project. School board Chair Grace Edwards said they would.