Combined middle/high school studied

Published 5:50 pm Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

JACKSON – Plans to construct a new centrally-located high school have been discussed in Northampton County for several years, but potential grant funding from the state may be able to make that idea a reality.

During their regular meeting here on Feb. 14, the Northampton County Board of Education gave Interim Superintendent Dr. Del Burns the okay to proceed with an application for the funding, which could total up to $90 million.

The money would come from the Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund, which was first established by the NC General Assembly in 2017 to provide money to districts who need to address critical school facility needs. It’s funded through the NC Education Lottery.

In the past, the district had applied for this funding, and was awarded $15 million in Nov. 2019 with the stipulation that the local county government would provide a $5 million match.

“My understanding is the match was available,” Dr. Burns explained, “however the additional amount necessary to build the school was not available. So that $15 million was set aside for a while. That was done in other districts as well.”

The state budget, which was approved late last year, made significant changes to the Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund program and increased the fund total to $395 million to be distributed across the state. Among those changes were that the maximum award amounts were increased to $30 million for elementary school construction, $40 million for middle schools, and $50 million for high schools. The local match requirement has also been dropped for districts—including Northampton—with an adjusted market value of taxable real property less than $2 billion.

“What that means is that for Northampton County there is no match needed,” Burns emphasized during his presentation to the board.

According to the updated legislation for the funding, grants will be awarded in with the following priorities: counties designated as Tier One, counties with greater need and less ability to generate sales tax and property tax revenue, counties with a high debt-to-tax revenue ratio, the extent to which a project will address critical deficiencies to serve the current and future student population, projects with new construction, projects that will consolidate two or more schools into one new facility, and counties that have not received a grant from this fund in the previous three years.

“I believe Northampton County checks every one of those boxes, if not almost all of them,” Dr. Burns noted.

In requesting approval from the board to apply, Dr. Burns explained that the plan would be to construct a new centrally-located consolidated school to house 6-12 grade. He’s still working with RATIO Design Architects—who has worked with the district previously—to get an exact cost estimate, but they’re projecting the combined school to be more than $50 million.

“Right now, the price per square foot for school construction is much in excess of $400 a square foot, which is a multiple of what it was just a few years ago,” he explained.

With that in mind, he asked the board for approval to apply for the $50 million high school grant and the $40 million middle school grant, though he does not expect to need to full $40 million. The applications are due March 15, and award notification is expected in April.

“The belief is that a 6-12 school, one secondary school in the center of the county, that could serve all the students in a new, technologically advanced, state-of-the-art facility would be a benefit to Northampton County students and also the community,” he concluded.

Following Dr. Burns presentation, the board discussed the opportunity for grant funding.

Board member Tony Burnette questioned the need to construct a new building when they’ve already spent money to make improvements to existing schools.

“There’s no such thing as free money,” he stated, expressing concerns that this project would have an impact on local taxes.

Board chair Rhonda Taylor replied that this would be zero-match grant funding, and compared it to the recent $14 million grant the county received to build a new courthouse.

Taylor noted that people have been talking about a new centrally-located school back when she was running for a seat on the school board 12 years ago. Costs to construct that school have continued to increase each year.

“Here we are with an opportunity to get $50 million,” Taylor stated.

Burnette also asked what the plan will be on closing schools if the project moves forward.

Dr. Burns explained that the board would need to discuss and make decisions on many things going forward. But if the 6-12 school is constructed, the expectation is that it would serve as the county’s high school as well as a consolidation of both middle schools.

Taylor said they could have a more detailed discussion if the funding application was approved.

Board member Barbara Stephenson motioned to give Dr. Burns permission to submit the applications, and Dr. Marjorie Edwards seconded.

The vote passed 4-1, with Burnette casting the dissenting vote. Board member Theresa Scott abstained from voting since she arrived late and missed the presentation.

Following that decision, Dr. Burns also presented the board with a contract for RATIO Design Architects to continue assisting with the project. The company previously worked with the district to develop a design for a new school when they applied for the funding in 2018.

Burns reported the cost for this contract is $18,600, but noted some of that is reimbursable if the district receives the grant funding.

The vote to approve the contract was also 4-1 with dissent again from Burnette and another abstention from Scott.