Published 12:20 pm Thursday, April 21, 2016

JACKSON – It appears that the Northampton County Board of Education will have to seek other financial resources if they decide to move forward with their approved plan to re-configure/consolidate several schools within its district.

On Monday, in a called meeting to meet with local education officials, the Northampton County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to reject the $1.4 million requested by the School Board to implement the plan.

The rejection by the Commissioners came after County Manager Kimberly Turner informed them that while the county does have an additional $550,000 for the school system’s capital needs this year (an amount approved by both boards on the heels of last year’s mediation agreement), it would require a tax hike to provide the total requested funds for this plan.

It was at a called meeting on April 13 by the Northampton Board of Education where, in a narrow 4-3 vote, they approved Option 4 of their “Way Forward Plan.” That plan, slightly modified after many parents of school-age children voiced their displeasure at a public meeting held April 7, keeps Willis Hare Elementary (grades Pre-K to 5) and Conway Middle (grades 6-8) as currently configured for students residing in the eastern portion of the county. The remainder of Option 4 includes closing the current high school campus near Creeksville and sending all 9th-12th graders to the current Gaston Middle School (the old Northampton County High School-West campus). Gaston Elementary would house students in grades 1-8 from the west side of the county. Squire Elementary would be the home for pre-K and Kindergarten students in the western half of the county, high school students preparing for the Early College program at Halifax Community College, and an alternative learning center. Central Elementary School in Jackson would continue for grades pre-K through 5th.

At Monday’s meeting, the commissioners discussed the $1.4 million price tag the BOE placed on Option 4. If they had approved the measure for implementation, the only financial resource would be through a property tax increase.

Northampton Schools’ Executive Director of Auxiliary Services Doug Miller represented the BOE at Monday’s meeting. When asked why this plan was selected, he said, “The Northampton County BOE chose this option because it put the kids in the newest buildings.”

Commissioner Robert Carter stated, “With the cost of the project escalating to $1.4 million, there is no other way to get the money without raising taxes.”

Carter added that he felt the county citizens had spoken during the March 15 Primary by overwhelmingly rejecting a referendum on the ballot calling for a 9.92-cent supplemental tax that would have built a new combined middle school/high school. Those facilities came with a price tag exceeding $30 million.

“Please listen,” Carter told Miller, “the citizens have spoken.”

Commissioner Virginia Spruill said she understood Option 4 was presented by the BOE at the April 7 public hearing that had over 100 people in attendance. When the audience was asked how many supported the plan, she said only one hand was raised.

“How much consideration was given to public opinion,” Spruill asked.

Miller said there was much discussion by the School Board before and after the public hearing, with the BOE split by a 4-3 vote. He suggested the commissioners ask individual BOE members concerning their reaction to the public opinion.

The commissioners then discussed a tour they collectively made to five schools along with some Northampton County BOE members on April 5. Commissioner Joseph Barrett pointed out that it was mentioned on the tour that Gaston Middle didn’t have adequate room to facilitate programs offered at the current high school campus at Creeksville, therefore, modular units would have to be purchased and used at the Gaston campus.

Carter pointed out that these modular units would cost approximately $400,000, which is why the cost for Option 4 escalated from $800,000 in early April to the current $1.4 million.

Barrett said the modular units would only be used for about three years under this plan. He further stated that a building 50 years old (the age of the current high school) could be sufficient to educate children in, if there were proper maintenance and upkeep.

County Commissioner Chairwoman Fannie Greene added, “Age didn’t have a lot to do with it; it was neglect.”

Greene further iterated that problems the Board of Commissioners had been told about were not pointed out on the tour.

In reply, Miller said there had been a mold problem in one of the schools the commissioners had been informed of, but it had since been remediated. Barrett added that there are also ways to take care of asbestos issues safely.

Miller was asked by Greene about the number of high school students residing in the eastern portion of the county as compared to western Northampton.

Miller replied that about 130 high school-age students now live in the west end and around 400 students live in the east end, representing approximately two-thirds of high school students living almost an hour away from Gaston.

Barrett pointed out that from a businessman’s perspective, “That isn’t logical,” apparently referencing the transportation costs associated with a plan calling for busing 400 students west as compared to the 130 now traveling from Gaston to Creeksville.

Local residents at Monday’s meeting spoke in favor of not sending the majority of high school-age students in the county to Gaston. Instead, they promoted the issue of paying attention to the revitalization of existing schools.

A county resident in the audience said, “Government funding for schools was based on the number of students attending schools, and if attendance was cut, funding would diminish.”

He added, “Parents would either pay extra to have their kids go to Ahoskie because it’s closer than Gaston, do home schooling, or send their kids to private school rather than send them way across the county”.

Audience member Nancy Nicholson spoke about the reflection the Northampton County Schools’ profile has on the Internet where particular school district ratings and reviews are displayed. She said she had researched this and in Northampton, above 80 percent were non-proficient in achieving at grade level. She pointed out that this would be a deterrent to business people wishing to relocate here with school aged kids. In conclusion, she thought emphasis should be focused on improving the schools as they are.

The president of Roanoke Chowan Community College, Dr. Michael Elam, spoke and pointed out that many high school students are bused from the current Northampton High School to RCCC for programs it offers.

Elam said, “RCCC offers vocational programs such as welding and EMT classes that Northampton County High students attend.” He added that if these students were moved to Gaston it would be too far for them to travel to RCCC.

Elam also stated that, “Northampton County is one of the few counties in the state that can reap the benefits of two community colleges.” He said R-CCC has one of the best high school operations in the state.

After hearing all discussion, the board agreed to reject the funding for Option 4. Turner pointed out that the next Commissioner’s meeting (scheduled for May 2), budget issues would be discussed regarding financing improvements to existing schools. Turner also stated she would send a letter to the school board defining what was decided upon at Monday’s meeting.

Later, at the 6 p.m. open session of the Northampton County Commissioners, school board member Clinton Williams spoke during the public comments session expressing concern that the community forum held April 7 did not truly express the concerns of the people.

Those in attendance at that forum, one covered by this newspaper, were most all in agreement not to bus eastern county students across the county to Gaston.

Williams stated, “The vote didn’t represent the majority of the people and it was skewed,” as in only a random sampling of the people.

The commissioners replied that their decision on the issue had been made at the 4:30 p.m. meeting and a letter about the details of the meeting would be sent to the BOE this week.