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Central high school discussed

JACKSON – Members of the Northampton County Board of Commissioners and the Board of Education met together here Wednesday to discuss future plans for the public school system.

The two boards sat together in the conference room of the Northampton County Memorial Library to discuss items such as student population numbers, potential new school construction, and old unused school buildings.

The Vision 20/20 plan, presented by Superintendent Dr. Monica Smith-Woofter and school board Chairman Clinton Williams, proposed construction for a new high school building in a more central location. The eventual goal would be to shut down aging school buildings and repurpose the other existing schools to serve different grade levels.

Building a new high school in Jackson, for example, would allow students at Gaston Middle to be shifted over from the building they currently share with elementary students to instead use the current high school building located less than a mile away.

To justify the need for a centralized high school, Smith-Woofter explained the district’s current and projected student numbers.

“We’ve roughly, over the last decade, been losing anywhere from 75 to 150 students,” the superintendent explained, mentioning overall population decline in the county as a contributing factor.

Local charter schools too, she said, are another reason for decreasing enrollment numbers.

Her data showed, as of January 23, the actual student population for the district (K-12) is 1,638. That’s 133 students less than the state’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI) had projected.

Additional data provided showed DPI’s projected student total over the next few years should continue to decline before seeing an increase in student population beginning again around 2021.

If population declines enough, Smith-Woofter explained, the school system would benefit more from a high school in a more centrally-located area than where it’s located currently on the western end of the county.

“We’re a very wide geographic county,” she reminded everyone of the distance some students have to traverse to attend high school. “We need to think about what’s going to be the best for our future youth.”

The proposed high school would be designed for a core of 450 students, with the option to add middle school grades if necessary.

“I think a centralized school would be very helpful, even if we decide at some point that we have to add some of the middle school population,” said Chairman Williams, emphasizing a need to maintain student numbers. “I think we have to approach this from more of a business model.”

The county commissioners in attendance seemed to generally agree a school located in the center of the county would be beneficial, but Commissioners Charles Tyner and Geneva Faulkner cautioned against overbuilding, especially because the projected numbers showed a dwindling amount of high school students continuing to fall over the next several years.

“No more can we afford to overbuild, thinking that [student population] would increase,” Tyner said, to which Faulkner agreed that a building with empty spaces would be hard to explain to county citizens.

Dr. Smith-Woofter justified the school board’s position by saying they wanted to be prepared for future possibilities, particularly because it would be more difficult in the future to expand the school if they design it smaller than necessary.

School Board member Lucy Edwards also pointed out that changing trends in education, such as classroom size mandates, will require more building space than it has in the past.

The superintendent also cited monetary concerns as a reason to plan ahead to construct the high school.

“At the state level [of funding], if we don’t get this now, I don’t think this is going to happen. We know as a county we can’t afford a $25 million or $30 million school on our own,” she explained. “It’s either now or never.”

In October of last year, Northampton County submitted an application for $15 million from the state’s Need-Based Public School Capital Fund to be used in constructing the new high school. If awarded, the county commissioners would have contributed a 3-to-1 match totaling $5 million.

Northampton County was not chosen to receive any funding last year, but both boards were in perfect agreement to apply again this year. And this time, the school board will have the advantage of being able to submit more detailed plans of the proposed high school.

The Board of Education hired an architect firm which has designed many schools in Wake County to draw up plans for the proposed project. Dr. Smith-Woofter described having those building plans as an investment to put themselves in a better position to receive funding.

Commissioner Tyner agreed, saying, “we’ve got to have some plan. We’ve got to be ground ready.”

The joint meeting wrapped up with a discussion on unused school buildings, both sides agreeing they will make some decisions regarding the subject soon.

Dr. Smith-Woofter said at the end she thought it had been a very productive meeting, and everyone agreed it was important to keep the dialogue of discussion open between the two groups.

“We leave here on one accord,” concluded Commissioner Chairman Robert Carter, “that the Board of Education and the Board of Commissioners are going to join hands together to make sure our students will receive the proper education that we can give them.”