N’hampton officials discuss consolidation

Published 9:52 am Thursday, February 10, 2011

JACKSON — Northampton County Schools has come to a fork in the road concerning their two high schools.

Facing decreasing enrollment and the cutback of nearly $2 million in funding, school officials are studying the possibility of consolidating the district’s two high schools—Northampton County High School- East near Creeksville and Northampton County High School-West STEM in Gaston.

On Monday night, a presentation concerning future school operations was given to the Board of Education by Assistant Schools Superintendent Phil Matthews.

“The challenge is to choose the best path to take for current operations that will ensure the future overall health of the school system and provide the best possible services to the students,” Matthews report states. “The best that can be done is to examine available facts and information and seek the best advice that can be found. The reduction in student enrollment and financial resources creates a fork in the road requiring decisions.”

Matthews noted in his presentation that enrollment and financial resources are the main driving forces in the accomplishment of delivering education to students.

Declining enrollment and financial resources

Five year system wide enrollment history shows a steady decline. In school year 2006-07, the district had 2,993 students; the current year is down by 438 students. The North Carolina Department of Instruction (DPI) predicted enrollment will continue to decline, with approximately 2,008 students in the school district in school year 2015-16 and 1,881 students enrolled in 2020-21.

The district currently has 650 high school students enrolled in Northampton’s two high schools; NCHS-East has a total of 404 students while NCHS-West has 246.

Matthews report showed DPI has projected high school enrollment to decline, reflecting the district wide trend. By school year 2015-16 the high school enrollment is projected to be 497 students and by 2020-21 only 417 students.

Matthews stated that historically DPI projections have proven reliably accurate.

He further explained the importance enrollment is to public schools. State funding often comes in two ways, both are based on enrollment. One is in the form of dollar allotment (simply a sum of money for a specific objective) while the other is in person allotment (just an allotment of people, such as the number of teachers).

In addition to declining enrollment affecting school district finances, the threat of state budget restraints is also looming with North Carolina’s $3.7 billion shortfall. For three consecutive years, public school budgets have been cut.

“What does this mean to Northampton County Schools? Operating with more than $800,000 less this year than last year,” Matthews reported. “(We) have already, over the past three years, made the reductions necessary to operate within current resources. Under current the operation, there are no further reductions that can be made without severely reducing services to students.”

State agencies across North Carolina have been told to prepare for a five, 10 or 15 percent reduction in state funding.

For Northampton County Schools a five percent reduction would mean a loss of $885,202 (16 teachers, if reduction was in teacher allocation). Meanwhile, a 10 percent reduction would result in the loss of $1.38 million in funding (26 teachers) and a 15 percent reduction would mean a loss of more than $2 million in funding (38 teachers).

The school district is also facing this year with out ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) funds which is a $1.05 million reduction from this year to next. Matthews noted this fund is currently supporting 28 teachers in the district.

“At the current time it appears resources to fund approximately 30 to 35 teachers currently employed will not be available for next school year,” Matthews stated in the report. “The overall dollar reduction anticipated for Northampton County Schools for 2010-12 is expected to be around $2 million.”

Financial savings with one high school

With one high school, Northampton County Schools would save $1,365,985 in professional staff costs, according to Matthew’s report.

In core academic areas (English, math, science and social studies) with one high school the district would save 14 teachers slots at a $495,655 value.

In support academic areas (Exceptional, art/music, health/PE, Spanish) there would be a savings of 9.5 instructional slots at a $449,734 value with one high school.

In other support academic areas (CTE, JROTC, media/counselor, high school assistant principals), there would be a savings of 10 employee slots at a $420,596 value.

A single high school would also have a savings in athletics. The 2010-11 local budget for athletics for the two high schools is $238,000.

“It will all be spent and more needed,” Matthews said of the budget.

With one high school the budget could be reduced by $20,000 in personnel alone.

“Flexibility in the area of supplies, materials/equipment could be generated,” the report states. “Transportation and fees related to athletics would be reduced by half as well.”

Transportation cost would increase with one high school

Though a single high school would cut back on staffing financial resources, it would add to the cost of transporting students to one destination. Additionally, high school students from either side of the county would face lengthy bus rides to school.

For students in the furthest northeastern portion of the county (near Pendleton and Severn communities) the longest ride time to NCHS-West STEM would be two hours plus. Currently, the longest ride time to NCHS-East is one hour and 15 minutes. There are approximately 35 high school students in this portion of the county.

For the estimated 40 high school students in the southeastern portion of the county (Rich Square and Woodland areas) the longest bus ride time to NCHS-West STEM would take more than two hours. Currently, the longest ride to NCHS-East is one hour and 15 minutes.

On the western panhandle of the county, an estimated 40 high school students would have a maximum of one hour and 50 minute ride to NCHS-East. The current longest ride time to NCHS-West STEM is one hour and five minutes.

If all high school students in those outlying areas mentioned above go to NCHS-East, transportation costs would increase $85,000 (estimate). If all were to go to NCHS-West STEM there would be an estimated increase cost of $122,500.

In his summary of financial resources, Matthews noted there is a prospect to improve program/curriculum and opportunities to students with all resources directed toward a single high school for 650 students rather than being divided between two high schools.

Past feasibility reports on school district

In the past, both a local community taskforce and independent feasibility studies showed support for one high school to serve the county while noting the drawback of transportation costs.

In 2009, a local community taskforce was initiated to study the consolidation of schools. In addition, an independent feasibility study was conducted on the district by MBAJ Architectural the same year and another by SFL&A last year.

“During this process the operations of high schools were included in the discussion but not acted on,” Matthews report stated.

In September, a report from School Planning with DPI recommended the following:

To perform minimum renovations to NCHS-East to serve all high school grades for five years.

Operate a middle school at existing Conway Middle School and the current NCHS-West STEM.

Close Squire Elementary School completely and move Pre-K, Kindergarten and first grades to Gaston Elementary with appropriate additions and renovations.

Continue to strive for a new centrally located high school.

Matthews said in his presentation that the feasibility reports offered several options, but when high school operations were discussed NCHS-East was the school cited as the single high school because its capacity of 850 students would accommodate current enrollment, fewer students would be affected by transportation and there would be less cost. By converting NCHS-West to a middle school would allow for the closure of Squire Elementary.

Matthews noted though NCHS-East could accommodate the whole of the high school student enrollment, it is also a 50-year-old facility with accessibility issues and possible issues with the age and condition of the mechanical systems. As well, the report stated, the cost estimate for NCHS-East to fully reach modern standards for the next five year range between $2-4 million.

If NCHS-West were to be considered as the single high school it would need newer science labs and the addition of mobile units or construction would be needed to address its current capacity of 510 students. Matthews noted there were no cost estimates available for the work, but conversations with two architects confirmed construction for a 150 student addition would exceed $2 million at a minimum.

With this option the report stated transportation issues would increase in both ride time and costs; Squire would remain open and NCHS-East would be closed.

After public hearings were held in 2009, there was a decision by the board to close two elementary schools (W.S. Rich Square Creecy and Garysburg)

More recently, school officials set out to secure funding for constructing a centrally located high school. However, funding was unable to be secured, leaving the school district to operate two high schools with declining enrollment and funding resources.

“The chosen path must be affordable, while providing the best possible services for the students,” Matthews said in his conclusion.