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Spend wisely

JACKSON – To keep everyone “on the same page” when it comes to education funding, the Northampton County Board of Commissioners and Board of Education held a joint meeting here on July 15.

“We’re responsible for every dollar that comes to our county,” said Commissioner Chair Charles Tyner in his opening remarks. “We’re responsible for making sure that even your [the Board of Education] dollars are spent wisely. This is a new day in Northampton County when it comes to spending money.”

“We plan on being good stewards of taxpayer money,” answered BOE Chair Rhonda Taylor in her own opening comments. “Our top priority is educating our students.”

“This year’s expenses are going to be astronomical. We want to make sure our students and staff are safe,” she continued, referencing the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The joint meeting—which was held with some members attending via telephone—covered a variety of financial discussions including the school district’s current expense allocation, money for a new school building, and land for a workforce housing project.

For the 2020-21 fiscal year budget, the Northampton Commissioners allocated a total of $3.5 million to the school district for current expense—the same amount they had been given during the previous year. The district originally requested $4 million from the county.

Tyner suggested the school district draw money from its own Fund Balance to make up the difference between what was requested and what was given. He cited that Fund Balance total as approximately $1.9 million, emphasizing they would have more than enough to balance their budget and still have plenty left over. He also said the county would continue to help the school district out in case of emergencies.

“Our first priority right now in Northampton County is to make sure our children are educated,” he continued. “We’re not going to get into the business of telling you where these funds will go, but we are going to get into the business of making sure that they are spent wisely.”

Tony Burnette, a new member of the BOE, said he wanted to assure everyone that the students will be first and foremost in every decision made, and they’ll make sure county funds are spent where they’re needed.

“This is a new day in Northampton County with this Board of Education,” Burnette said.

The next point of discussion centered on the often-discussed, but not-yet-materialized plan to build a new high school in a centralized location.

Since 2017, the district has applied for funds from the Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund, a grant created by the NC General Assembly to address critical school building capital needs in Tier One and Tier Two counties. If awarded, the funds can only be used for new construction, not rehabilitation of older buildings.

After a few unsuccessful applications, Northampton County Schools was finally awarded $15 million—the maximum a Tier One district can receive—in Nov. 2019. One stipulation to receive the money is a local match from the county government. For Tier One counties like Northampton, the match is $1 from the county for every $3 in grant funds, meaning the county is required to supply $5 million for the project.

Districts which receive money from this fund are ineligible to receive money from the state’s education lottery for the next five years.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Tyner lamented the loss of the lottery funding.

“I don’t think it was right. I didn’t know it at the time,” he admitted.

To come up with the $5 million match, Tyner said the county would have to borrow the amount, which could reduce the amount of money they would be able to allocate to the district in the future.

“We have no money put aside to build a new school,” the commissioner chair continued in response to a question from the BOE about saving up money for the project over the years.

Tyner also noted that citizens had previously said no to a school bond which had been proposed by former boards.

In the ensuing discussion, a few BOE members pointed out that the cost for a new school increases each year, and it will cost them more money now because the project has continued to be put off over and over again since it was first proposed several years ago.

The commissioners acknowledged that costs have indeed continued to rise. Commissioner Kelvin Edwards explained there has already been an increase in the amount needed to prepare the land at the potential sites for the new school. Commissioner Geneva Faulkner said new architecture drawings will have to be drawn up again and suggested making the school “less flashy” so the cost might be closer to the $20 million allocation.

The discussion continued with some members of the BOE even going as far as suggesting they shouldn’t build a new school at all. Tyner cut that more detailed conversation short, reminding the school board members that wasn’t a topic for the commissioners to be a part of.

The final point of the meeting focused on the Board of Commissioners’ proposal to build workforce housing. Their goal is to provide housing for district teachers as well as county and state employees on a site of land next to Central Elementary School in Jackson. The Board of Education currently owns that property.

Tyner stated they had originally surveyed five acres of that property, but the developer said they needed 10 acres. He added the commissioners were willing to do whatever is necessary in order to obtain the land.

“We’re ready for some houses,” Tyner said, requesting the BOE to talk with their attorney about the situation. “We’re interested in that piece of land so that we can go on and do the houses. We’re really ready. We need this as soon as we possibly can.”

He also noted that an added benefit to more housing is an increase to the tax base in the county.

“You’re not using the land anyway,” he concluded.

The meeting concluded with an emphasis from members of both boards to look forward to the future instead of focusing on problems from the past.