Northampton Commissioners approve school grant application

Published 6:14 pm Friday, February 25, 2022

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JACKSON – In a unanimous decision here on Feb. 21, the Northampton County Board of Commissioners gave their approval for the school district to proceed with an application for grant funds, which could total up to $90 million.

This followed a similar 4-1 vote of approval by the county’s Board of Education last week to apply for funding to construct a new centrally-located school for Northampton’s district. If funding is secured, that school is intended to house grades 6-12.

Northampton Schools Interim Superintendent Dr. Del Burns presented the information before the commissioners at their regular meeting, just as he did during the Board of Education’s previous meeting.

He explained that the money would come from the Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund, first established by the NC General Assembly in 2017 to provide money to districts that need to address critical school facility needs. The money in that fund comes from the NC Education Lottery.

When the new state budget was passed late last year, significant changes were made to the program, which increased the fund total to $395 million to be distributed across the state. Among those changes, the maximum award amounts were increased to $30 million for elementary school construction, $40 million for middle schools, and $50 million for high schools.

In the past, the maximum amount was $15 million across the board, and a local match was required from the county government. The district was previously awarded the maximum amount in Nov. 2019, with the stipulation that the local government would also provide a $5 million match. But the total cost to construct a new school well exceeded that amount, so the project did not move forward.

Now that matching requirement has been dropped in districts—including Northampton—with an adjusted market value of taxable real property less than $2 billion.

“Northampton County would have no matching funds required,” Burns emphasized.

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.

Dr. Burns also noted that the district has a contract with RATIO Design Architects—who has worked with the district previously—to develop a plan and finalize cost estimates for the proposal.

With a combined middle/high school design, the cost is projected to exceed $50 million. The plan is to submit an application for a $50 million high school grant, and then another application for a $40 million middle school grant, though they do not expect to need the full $40 million to complete the project.

The applications are due March 15, and award notification from the NC Department of Public Instruction is expected in April.

“We would be a fool not to let these funds come to our county,” stated Board Chair and Interim County Manager Charles Tyner following Dr. Burns’ presentation.

Tyner did, however, raise questions about what the district plans to do with other school buildings that may become vacant if the district goes through with the consolidation. He noted population decline in the district, and also pointed out that the commissioners are still making payments on some school buildings.

He said he would vote in favor of submitting the application “because this is an opportunity that we might not ever have again in Northampton” but he stressed that they should know what the school system plans to do with the vacant buildings.

According to general statute 115C-518, surplus property, such as a closed school facility, must first be made available to the board of commissioners. If the commissioners do not want the property, the district has more options they can pursue.

Other commissioners made comments in favor of the proposed application for funding.

“If we don’t do it now, it’s going to be someone else having to replace a building somewhere down the line,” Commissioner Geneva Faulkner pointed out.

She recalled discussions from previous years about district consolidation due to declining population and the need for a centrally-located school, which would reduce transportation burden for students who live in the farthest reaches of the county.

“I’m just so happy this opportunity has come back around,” stated Commissioner Kelvin Edwards. “Thank you to the school board and to your leadership, Dr. Burns, for bringing this before this Board of Commissioners.”

Commissioner Nicole Boone agreed, calling the funding opportunity a “blessing.”

“I just hope for the best for Northampton County,” Boone said. “We all support young people in education and training.”

Boone motioned for the school district to proceed with their application, and Edwards provided the second. The vote passed unanimously in favor.

During citizen comments later in the meeting, former Northampton Board of Education members Richie Harding and Clinton Williams spoke in favor of pursuing the grant funding.

“No matter how many kids we have, we’ve got to have a place to educate our children,” Harding said about declining population numbers. “It is very important for them to be able to have a school in the center of our county.”

“I believe we can reclaim our students with a state-of-the-art high school,” Williams stated in his remarks.

He also urged the commissioners to continue to support the project, so that the public will support it as well.

Donna Jenkins also read a letter of support on behalf of the Northampton Citizens United group. The letter called this “a once in a lifetime opportunity to move our school system and county forward without a tax burden to our citizens.”