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High school merger talk continues

JACKSON — The recent decision by the Northampton County Board of Education to merge the district’s two high schools was main topic for conversation during a joint meeting between county and school officials.

On Monday, the Northampton County Board of Education along with the Board of Commissioners discussed the high school merger in length.

The decision to merge Northampton County High School-East and Northampton County High School-West came December 5 in two separate decisions by education officials.

The decision to merge the two schools passed in a 6-1 vote with Bill Little casting the dissenting vote. A separate vote was taken for the location of merged high school and a motion was made to consolidate into the Creeksville precinct (Northampton County High School-East). The motion passed 6-1 with Erica Smith-Ingram objecting.

Schools Superintendent Dr. Eric Bracy gave the Board of Commissioners an update concerning the state of the school district.

“We’re doing very well academically in the school district,” he said. “We have the highest performing traditional comprehensive high school in this area, Northampton East—almost 80 percent of their kids have proficiency and High School West is at 68.8, and they’ve come a long way in a short period of time.”

He also addressed the future impacts of the two high schools merging.

“We believe we will move forward not only financially but academically by consolidating the two high schools,” he said.

Bracy said with consolidation the district can offer its high school students more courses and electives. Bracy added the merger would also mean more electives could be offered to the lower grades.

“We need to increase our electives at our middle schools as well as our high schools,” he said.

Bracy added there were still decisions to come about the merger, including the board deciding on a name for the consolidated school and working with students about the mascot and colors.

The commissioners expressed concerns they had heard from the public.

Board of Education Chairman Donald Johnson said the merger was something the public needed to give a chance.

“The children are excited, the parents might not be, but the children are excited,” he said.

Commission Chairman James Hester agreed.

“With what I’ve been able to see in my line of work, with the economy and everything like it is there is a lot of negativity out there,” he said. “They’ve got to see it on paper and begin to work and even if you get it together and it’s working perfectly, there will still be some questions.”

Concerns about the length of bus rides from the western end of the county to Northampton-East were also brought to the table.

Commissioner Fannie Greene said she had citizens voice their apprehensions over the distance.

“Parents are not happy about their children having to travel so far,” she said.

Commission Vice Chair Virginia Spruill questioned if school officials had evaluated the transportation issue.

School officials confirmed they did and Dr. Bracy said the furthest ride would take one hour and 20 minutes.

Ingram said she also had received a lot of complaints from constituents on the western end as well and there were concerns about job lay offs.

“So let’s not sit here and paint a picture that everything is fine and everything is rosy,” she said. “This is going to be very challenging. Like you (Hester) said about the economy being such as it is, the last thing Northampton County wants to hear in a high poverty area is that one of the larger employers of Northampton County is getting ready to lay off because you’re not going to need all of those positions.”

Ingram also noted the price of gas for parents to drive across the county for athletic events and activities.

With the distance and traveling concerns, Commissioner Robert Carter suggested if school officials had considered changing the hours of the school’s start time.

Bracy said officials were looking at all options.

After further discussion, County Manager Wayne Jenkins asked if the Board of Education was expecting the same level of funding from the county.

“I would say yes, I don’t want less, but we’ve got to look out for our facilities,” responded Bracy.

Carter questioned how Northampton County High School-West would be utilized after the merger.

Bracy said the school would be used as a middle school.

Ingram asked if the commissioners anticipated five to seven years from now funding the construction of a centrally located high school.

“I don’t see how we could possibly answer that because of the fluctuation of the economy,” said Hester. “I know that our citizens are taxed to the limit and if you live in the county you know that. …I don’t see how we could possibly answer that. We would hope we would be, but I just don’t know.”

Ingram later posed the question again to county officials, feeling she had not had full response.

Hester said he did not see the commissioners funding a new high school in five to seven years at this time. He noted the state was passing down costs of services to the county.

Greene agreed, saying the county helping to fund a new high school would depend on the economy.

Little noted the importance of building a savings account for the construction of a new high school.

“Is there some way we can start building a nest egg,” Little asked.

Carter suggested the money saved with the consolidation to be put aside as a nest egg.

Board of Education Vice Chairwoman Marjorie Edwards said she understood being frugal, but Northampton-East still needed to be brought up to par for students.

“There’s still a lot of things that need to be done to East to get it up to where it needs to be,” she said.

Edwards said classrooms needed to be updated along with other cosmetic items like the tiles on the floor, and the walls as well as work to the heating system. There was also apparently storm damage from Hurricane Irene to the school as well.

Little asked the commissioners if the two boards could start thinking about creating fund for a new high school.

Jenkins said a one to two cent special school tax could be levied. One cent on the tax rate of today’s value would generate $175,000, two cents would raise $350,000 and two and a half cents would raise $425,000. After five years, there would be a little over $2 million.

Carter said another option would be the quarter cent sales tax.

Jenkins said the General Assembly authorized local revenue options for counties. He added that based on 2009 figures the quarter cent sales tax would generate $150,000 a year.