High school decision rests with voters

Published 8:51 am Tuesday, March 16, 2010

JACKSON — Northampton County’s citizens will decide whether or not there will be a new, centrally located high school.

On Monday, the Northampton County Board of Commissioners voted to place a general obligation referendum on the ballot for the November election.

The commissioners’ decision comes after lengthy discussions about the issue. Earlier on Monday, the commissioners heard a presentation from the Northampton County Schools regarding the funding and need for a new high school.

Assistant Superintendent Phil Matthews walked the commissioners through an hour long presentation which included new information on the funding as well as how building a new high school could save the school system money.

The desired funding formula presented by the school system would utilize a public-private partnership. Through that partnership a non-profit organization (First Floor K-12 Northampton) would be formed and would obtain the funds for the $19.2 million high school. With traditional procurement the facility would cost $24 million.

The non-profit would own the facility and lease it to the county which in turn would lease it to Northampton County Schools. The non-profit would be eligible for tax credits and procurement strategies that would result in the $19.2 million price tag. However, the non-profit must own the building for the first 5-7 years to be qualified.

In the meantime, a totally “green” high school would be built and no payment would have to be made until the two year construction time is up.

“During this two year period, the school system can accumulate funds to ensure a financial balance sufficient to cover any unpredicted financial shortfalls once occupancy and payments start,” said Matthews.

The annual debt payment for the high school is guaranteed not to exceed $1 million a year, according to SFL+a Architects. To make that payment, the school system plans to use $322,000 of North Carolina Lottery proceeds, $183,000 of state annual average daily membership proceeds, $370,000 of annual county appropriation with an additional $125,000 from the county.

Matthews said that $370,000 is conservative as it’s based on operating a new facility versus operating two aging facilities. Northampton County High School-East would be close as well as Squire Elementary School in which students from there would be placed in Northampton County High School-West. Evidence of declining enrollment at both high schools and mechanical problems with NCHS-East was also presented.

According to Matthews, combining the two high schools in a new facility would save the school system $1.5 million with $200,000 of that being classified staffing and other services.

“Think for a minute. What program and course offerings could be provided to the students with this $1.5 million,” he said.

Matthews stressed the constriction of time that the project could happen with the appropriate tax credits and procurement strategies. The deadline for those American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds is September 30, the end of the federal government’s fiscal year.

During the presentation, the commissioners brought up a number of concerns.

Commissioner Robert Carter noted that as the project went through the appropriate procurement processes and legal channels, the Local Government Commission (LGC) may tell the county it had reach its maximum limit of borrowing power.

Matthews said the school system was aware of the LGC and the law was something everyone has to live by.

“The best we can do is the best we can do,” he said.

Funding the annual debt payment with “soft funds” like ADM and Lottery funds, which cannot be solidly budgeted for, also had the commissioners questioning the project.

Commission Vice Chair James Hester and Commissioner Virginia Spruill questioned what the school system would do if there was a shortfall on the $1 million a year debt payment.

Spruill in addition asked what would happen if the debt payment was more than $1 million and who would be responsible for that money.

Robert Ferris with SFL+a said that is why timing is critical for those tax credits, but if the debt payment was more SFL+a and the non-profit would take the responsibility.

“We’re prepared to take that risk,” he said.

Hester asked if anyone in the state had adopted this plan.

“There have been counties that have explored this but no county has gone through with this plan,” said Matthews.

Ferris added there are several counties leasing buildings.

Commission Chair Fannie Greene expressed a concern over busing students from the outlying edges of the county to the center.

With Jackson as about the center of the county, Matthews said there would be a little bit of traveling, but it would all be equal for those coming from the far edges of the county.

Schools Superintendent Dr. Eric Bracy added for high schools in other counties to have a two-hour bus ride is not uncommon. None of the bus routes in Northampton is anticipated to be two hours.

In the meeting the commissioners finally gave their decision with Hester motioning to place the matter as a general obligation referendum on the ballot for the November election.

“I have based my motion on what I’ve heard from citizens,” he said.

Commissioner Chester Deloatch seconded the motion.

County Manager Wayne Jenkins noted that with the referendum the project would not be eligible for the stimulus funds.

The commissioners approved the motion with no objections.

Board of Education member Charles Tyner asked why the commissioners were asking the public to take on a responsibility of not $19.2 million, but $24 million.

“At this time, we’re going to hear what the people have to say,” Greene said.