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The Chosen One

WINTON – The Hertford County Board of Commissioners have selected one of the three options presented to them in March for the construction of a new elementary school in Ahoskie.

By a 3-2 vote, the board favored the least costly option (#3), a $13.88 million plan that will construct a 57,150 square-foot facility across the street from the current Ahoskie Elementary School. The latter has served students since 1959 and has been a topic of serious discussion since 2011 to replace the aging facility.

The other two options both included a 465-seat auditorium. One (Option 2; with an estimated cost of $15.02 million) was favored by Commissioners Curtis Freeman (the board’s chairman) and Johnnie Ray Farmer. However, both stated they were in favor of building the school, no matter the chosen option.

Option 1 (which would be built to accommodate 100 more students than the other two and was the most expensive plan at $16.84 million) was not considered by the commissioners in their deliberations.

Commissioner John Horton, who joined board colleagues Ronald Gatling and Bill Mitchell in favoring Option 3, did voice his support for constructing an auditorium, but stressed he would rather see it built as an addition on the Hertford County High School campus.

Prior to the commissioners reaching a decision on the option, David Shields, chairman of the Hertford County Board of Education, said replacing the old Ahoskie Elementary School is long overdue.

“We need direction at this time if you (commissioners) are ready to move forward in selecting one of the three options presented to you in March by the project’s architect,” said Shields.

He pointed out there was $75 million available in the recently approved state budget (Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund) that could help counties across North Carolina offset the cost of new school construction. Shields added that the timing to apply for a portion of those state funds is approaching and that the state favors what he termed as “shovel-ready” jobs.

“We’re now at that point; we’ve spent $225,000 with the architect for the general plans on this project and what we need now is the direction we’re going from this point forward,” Shields remarked.

He added that with the age of the current elementary school, there will be some issues that need to be addressed, such as the HVAC system, but the board of education wanted to avoid making a huge investment in repairs with a new school on the horizon.

“This is a joint venture between both boards; we need to move forward so we can get in on the upcoming funding cycle for this state grant,” stated Shields.

The commissioners said they were ready to move forward now.

“We’re on board with building a new school; what we were taking some time to look at was the cost,” Freeman said. “We want to be wise in spending taxpayer money. We don’t want to burden our citizens with an overabundance of debt.”

Gatling inquired of Shields of what would be the next steps upon the commissioners selecting one of the options.

“It will go back to the architect for them to draw up more detailed plans,” Shields replied. “Then you have to locate a funding source for the project.”

Shields said if Hertford County is awarded a state grant, that money would be awarded this fall.

As the discussion got into the three options, it was at this point where Horton commented on the need for an auditorium.

“My choice is Option 3, but I do want to go on the record and say that through addition or renovation we to see if can build an auditorium at the high school while we’re going through this process of building a new elementary school,” Horton said. “Our cultural arts and theatre arts have been suffering at the high school. We could solve that by choosing either Option 1 or 2 (both including an auditorium), but I feel it will be in the wrong place. The auditorium is needed at the high school.”

Horton added that the $1.2 million difference between Options 2 and 3 could be used for the auditorium concept at the high school.

Mitchell and Gatling both favored Option 3, as did Farmer.

“There was talk at one time when the new addition to the cafeteria was built at the high school that an auditorium could be added there,” said Farmer. “If it’s an addition to this project or in conjunction with this project, I think an auditorium is more logical at the high school.”

Freeman said after being invited to a recent event at the auditorium at the new Bertie High School, he “fell in love” with that facility.

“Our county needs one,” Freeman said of an auditorium. “Therefore, my choice is Option 2. We’ve been putting off having an auditorium for years. If we put it off again, it might be years and years before it comes back to the table again.”

Hertford County Schools Superintendent Dr. William Wright clarified the auditorium discussion by saying if one is built on the high school campus or even if it was designed to attach it to one of the buildings there, it would “cost more than that ($1.2 million).”

A motion for Option 2 was defeated by a 3-2 vote. A subsequent motion for Option 3 was favored 3-2.

Option 3 has room for 400 students (600 core) with 14 classrooms, media center, cafeteria/kitchen, a gym (with a platform stage / no bleachers) and no auditorium. Space will be left vacant to possibly add four classrooms.

The new school’s main entrance will be on First Street (NC 561), adjacent to the Town of Ahoskie Cemetery. Faculty/staff and bus entrances to the school will be off Ruth Avenue.

Williams said the debt service payments for Option 3 would be approximately $1.3 million annually for 20 years.

“Once we shore up these numbers, we’re off to the LGC (Local Government Commission) to get their advice on how to finance this project,” Williams said.

“The good news right now is that we have about $2.1 million in lottery funds to use, and we have about another $1.5 million set aside for school projects,” she added. “That’s almost $4 million for us to get started, but at some point in time, that money will be used and go away and then property taxes and sales taxes will become what we rely on to make this debt service payment. Plus we still have all the other schools to take care of. By saying that, you all need to be mindful of not just what you’re spending for this particular school, but for the annual maintenance and the future of our other schools.”

Dr. Wright said he would work with Williams on putting together a grant application for the Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund from the state.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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