2012 Top Stories: #2: Merger met with resistance

Published 9:54 am Friday, January 4, 2013

The merger of two high schools proved to be a lightning rod of debate in Northampton County.

In December 2011, the Northampton County Board of Education voted 6-1 to merge Northampton County High School West/STEM in Gaston and Northampton County High School East beginning in the 2012-13 school year.

It was decided the consolidated school would be in the Creeksville precinct.

At that December 2011 meeting, the Board heard strong opposition from board member Erica Ingram-Smith about the school’s location.

That resistance set the mood for the following year making the school merger a hot button topic as the Board heard concerns from citizens as they grappled with how to move forward with one high school.

As reported in the January 12 edition of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, following the board’s decision to merge schools, parents, students and residents from the western portion of Northampton made their voices known.

During their January meeting the Board heard from eight citizens express their concerns varying from lengthy bus rides for students and the rivalry between East and West.

The Rev. Richard Webb accused board members of violating state law as it pertains to consolidating schools.

Among the other speakers’ concerns was traveling time for students and quality education. Another speaker suggested West would be a better option as a single high school with it being a new and modern facility

From the January 21 edition, a public hearing was held to hear from residents about the merger of the two public high schools.

Then Board Vice Chair Marjorie Edwards said the board would not take any action, but would simply listen to the concerns.

Thirteen people voiced their worries, including those about long bus rides, the effect on academic performance and job losses.

Representing Concerned Citizens of Northampton County to Save Our Children (CCNC), Rev. Webb said the group was seeking legal action.

From the February 16 edition, the debate spilled over into the boardroom.

Protesters and the demand for answers was the theme of Board of Education’s February meeting.

The CCNC attended the board meeting with signs calling for new board members and a new superintendent. The group protested outside of the Central Office and inside the board’s meeting room.

Several citizens again signed up for public comment, speaking out against the merging of the county’s two public high schools.

Board member Ingram urged her colleagues to respond and to open up dialogue with the community. She suggested the board schedule a meeting with the “Save Our School” group in order to have that conversation.

Following a two hour closed session for attorney-client privilege, Board member Kelvin Edwards offered Rev. Webb and a two or three constituents from “Save Our Schools” who were still in attendance to have them meet with the three board members who were not in attendance at the informal January meeting.

Webb initially refused that invitation, but after much discussion, he and a few of the constituents did agree to meet with the three board members.

The dissent over the merging of the two schools reached a fever pitch as, from March 8 edition, the board saw strong opposition from within its own ranks.

Despite the public outcries, board members voted 6-1 to ratify their original December 2011 decision.

Ingram, who stood in protest of the vote, offered the only opposing opinion.

She said none of the independent studies recommended locating the merged high school at East. She also noted work had been done to East, but was not up to par and would never be, even after renovation.

She rose from her chair and stood for the remainder of the meeting off to the side. Ingram said she would be silent in her protest so the board would not sanction her.

At the same meeting, the board also decided upon the name of the high school (Northampton County High School), its colors (navy blue, white and teal) and mascot (the Jaguars) as well. The administration noted a group of students were involved with a committee created to come up with the name, colors and mascot for the school.

Following the board concluding its business, Board Chairman Donald Johnson attempted to make comments on the merger as audience members continued to make remarks to him.

He said the board has been to the county commissioners, but have been turned down concerning the bond referendum for a new high school.

Johnson said the Board of Education was trying to get the Northampton County Commissioners to agree with what many citizens suggested: a new centrally located high school.

He also stated all the schools that have been built, the county never furnished the money, but had bond issues that the school board had to pay back. Johnson added the county by law is required to furnish the school system with the money they hadn’t done that.

As reported in the March 22 edition, Johnson comments sparked a response from the Board of Commissioners.

During a regular meeting, as directed by the Board, County Manager Wayne Jenkins provided an “extreme clarification” regarding the comment.

Jenkins said North Carolina General Statutes require all counties to provide two sources of funds to local school systems: current expense and capital outlay.

The Statutes also require the county to provide buildings for the schools, but do not tell the county what source of funds to take those funds from to pay that school’s debt.

He continued by saying that in Northampton County, historically, the construction of a new school has been done by general obligation bonds.

Jenkins said in the mid-1990s the board of county commissioners adopted a resolution that those funds earmarked for the school system to go into a special schools capital reserve fund, from which debt would be paid.

Commissioner Robert Carter asked Jenkins if there was a reason why the county adopted the resolution to place those funds into a reserve account.

Jenkins said prior to the resolution creating that reserve account, the county would receive sales tax reimbursement from the state. The funds would then be separated according to the formula and forward the amount earmarked for that particular bill on to the school board.

He said the Board of Education would take the money and use it as it deemed appropriate to fund schools needs. At the end of the year when it came time for the bond payment to be made, the school system had expended those funds for other purposes and did not have the funds to pay the school debt.

Jenkins said the commissioners took care of the bond debt that year and adopted the resolution.

He noted general obligation debt, regardless of what the purpose is, is general debt for the county and, to his knowledge, the Board of Education has not ever written a check to retire a debt payment.

From the June 16 edition, the schools’ funding from the commissioner remained unchanged for the upcoming county budget. In the proposed $24.73 million 2012-13 county general fund operating budget, the school district would be funded through current expense at $3,161,538 and capital outlay at $345,000. Fines and forfeitures came in at $100,000.

During discussion, school board members questioned if the school board was seeing a $100,000 cut.

Jenkins noted current year funding levels were exactly the same with the only difference being a special agreement for a one time $100,000 appropriation for fiscal year 2011-12, a result of mediation between the two boards.

As reported in the August 11 edition, CCNC filed a complaint with NC AdvancED against the Board of Education.

Richie Harding, president of Concerned Citizens of Northampton County to Save Our Children (CCNC), announced the complaint was filed by the grassroots organization through the UNC Center for Civil Rights.

In an Aug. 3 letter from Harding drafted to Donna James,

director of NC AdvancED, the complaint lodged against the school board was for “violations of SACS CASI Accreditation standards. Specifically the board’s process and ultimate decision to consolidate the county’s two high schools, Northampton High School East and Northampton STEM West at the East campus for the 2012-13 school year raise significant concerns of good governance and leadership.”

Health concerns for students attending East was a topic of concern, according to the October 13 edition.

During their regular meeting board member Clinton Williams and current Vice Chair Ingram discussed the topic with their colleagues.

Williams said this school year he has made several visits to the Creeksville-based school and was concerned about the cleanliness of the building and how the presence of asbestos was handled. He added he knew of students who have had medical issues and there were complaints about the possibility of airborne particles.

Ingram also expressed concerns about possible health issues with the school. She said she had recently visited the high school and, though it was cleaner, she felt the building was not appropriate for the school district to be educating students in the 21st Century.

Board member Rhonda Taylor responded saying she understood the frustration, but her son had attending East for the last three years and no one was concerned for him.

The Board’s Facilities Committee agreed to meet at high school to discuss the concerns.

As reported in the November 22 edition, the Board of Education heavily discussed the need for a new centrally located high school.

Ingram requested the Board’s November agenda be amended to include discussion about an appeal to the county commissioners regarding the funding of a new high school.

Ingram noted the matter was a follow up to when she along with fellow Board of Education member Clinton Williams expressed concerns regarding the conditions at the existing Northampton County High School.

Williams said he wanted the two boards to sit down and come up with a resolution.

The board moved to approve a motion to request a joint meeting with the commissioners and for the school board and administration to express to the county commissioners of the need for a new centrally located high school and request assistance in obtaining the objective.

As reported in the December 1 edition, the complaints and allegations lodged against Board of Education by CCNC were declared unfounded by AdvancED North Carolina.

In a letter dated Nov. 27 from Donna James, director of NC AdvancED, which told of the group’s findings after a review.

AdvancED found Northampton County Schools is not in violation of AdvancED Accreditations Standards and/or policies and no further action was needed.

James wished the district success with their new structure and their continued efforts to advocate with stakeholders in the community and to ultimately build a new high school in the center of the county.