The site is right

Published 3:59 pm Friday, February 17, 2023

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JACKSON – The Northampton County Board of Education dedicated time during their regular meeting on Feb. 13 for another discussion about the plan to construct a new high school in the county.

That discussion followed after a handful of citizens spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting to express concerns about the price of the land.

As previously reported by the News Herald, the school district received $50 million in state grant money from the Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund (NBPSCF) last year to be used for construction of a new high school.

At the school board’s Jan. 9 meeting, they unanimously approved a contract for design services with RATIO Architect. That contract covered all necessary design services along with a construction award price and “soft costs” (contingency, furnishings and equipment, testing, surveying, and inspections) for the project, bringing the total cost to $49,987,735.

The NBPSCF grant will cover those costs, but the school board needed to turn to the county’s Board of Commissioners to secure funds for purchasing a site for construction.

Northampton County Schools Superintendent Dr. Rosa Atkins and Special Assistant to the Superintendent Phil Matthews presented that request to the commissioners on Jan. 18. The price in the land purchase contract was listed as $25,000 per acre, totaling $1,575,000 for the 63-acre parcel located just north of the Jackson town limits on the east side of Highway 305.

At a special meeting on Jan. 30, the commissioners unanimously approved the expenditure of funds, which will come from the county’s Fund Balance.

With the approval to move forward secured, the Board of Education held a special meeting on Feb. 6 where they approved entering into the land purchase contract with the property owners: Lawrence and Kathryn Vaughan, and Charles Vaughan. The vote of approval was not unanimous, however, with board member Tony Burnette casting a vote of dissent.

Burnette said at that meeting he was concerned about the $25,000 per acre price, and that he believed the land was overvalued.

After hearing similar concerns from a few citizens at the Feb. 13 meeting, board member Clinton Williams asked Dr. Atkins if she could share more information about the process they went through to select that particular parcel of land.

Dr. Atkins noted that the selection process began before she came to Northampton’s district, so she asked Matthews to speak on the details of what took place.

“We investigated 14 sites,” Matthews began. “Seven of them, the landowners were not willing to sell. Three of them were not suitable sites for several reasons. Topographical, drainage, just the lay of the land.

“That left four sites that were open for consideration and that the landowner would consider selling,” he continued. “Those four sites were further scrutinized. We had the architect come down, ride the sites, give us advice.”

Matthews added that the site ultimately deemed as the most suitable had the necessary utilities infrastructure (water and sewer) already in place.

“It’s close to the town of Jackson. Very close to the EMS office,” he noted. “Close to the Sheriff’s department. Close to the town of Jackson Police Department. It had a lot of pluses.

“There are three other sites that landowners would sell, but they did not check all the boxes that this site checked. So we landed on this site,” Matthews concluded.

Dr. Atkins also added that the property was within close proximity to the Wellness Center, so they may be able to share some recreational facilities with the county without having to duplicate them.

Burnette asked for more information on the other three sites and the price per acre value for those.

Matthews said the first site was on the north side of Central Elementary School, but that site contained 10 county-owned acres with no additional land available and “would have been very tight [to build upon].”

The second site was a parcel located between the Northampton nursing facility and the Wellness Center, but it was also a small 25-acre property.

“It would have required you to build a multi-story building, and the topography of that land would require a huge amount of site work,” he explained.

The third site was located very near to the Vaughan property, and had the advantage of water and sewer availability as well. But Matthews explained that there was a two-story residence on the property which would also have needed to be purchased and then torn down. That would have added to the costs, he noted.

To Burnette’s question about the prices of those properties, Matthews said, “we did not approach those landowners to find the value,” and added, “It took some negotiation to get to $25,000 on the site we did select.”

Board member Lucy Edwards chimed in to ask for cost per acre comparisons to other recent land purchases by the county.

Board Chair Rhonda Taylor said that the county paid $65,000 per acre to purchase land for the new county courthouse, located on US 158 in Jackson, adjacent to the SECU office.

The commissioners purchased a 10-acre parcel of land for the courthouse in Dec. 2021. The original price was $65,000 per acre, though after a final negotiation before closing, that price was ultimately reduced to $621,050 (or approximately $62,000 per acre). A grant allocation from the state budget is being used to cover the construction costs for that project.

Board Attorney Rod Malone also spoke up during the discussion to note that a forthcoming appraisal of the land chosen for the new school could open the door for further negotiations.

“A condition of the contract is that the property must appraise for the purchase price,” Malone explained. “After we’ve done the other due diligence to make sure the site meets all the other conditions, one of the things Mr. Matthews will do is hire an appraiser. That will provide the board, the commissioners, the community some documentation of what the property is worth.

“In the event the property does not appraise for the purchase price, then that will open the door for some conversation between the board and the sellers about the proper purchase price. So there is protection for the school system to make sure it is a fair and reasonable number,” he concluded.

Taylor then reiterated comments she’d made during the previous special meeting, noting that this opportunity has been the best one so far, in terms of finances, to construct the new high school.

She explained that the plan for a centrally-located high school has been discussed as far back as 2010. At the time, they needed $19 million from the county to proceed but they didn’t garner support from the commissioners to move forward. In 2019, the district received a $15 million grant from the state that required a $5 million match from the county. Again, the project did not move forward.

Now they have $50 million from the state, and the only money needed from the county is the amount to purchase the land.

“You will never ever get a better opportunity than that to have a centrally-located safe high school. That’s what I want,” Taylor explained. “I want my grandchildren, and you all’s grandchildren if you bring them to Northampton County Schools, to have a better chance. Some people might not agree with me, and I’m fine with that. But I would want to look at what the future holds for our children.”

Burnette then posed one final question, asking, “Do we have a plan in place for when we do close the [existing] high school down?”

Dr. Atkins acknowledged that the same question had been posed by the commissioners as well.

“That plan will be laid out for this board and the commissioners soon. And it will be a team approach. The board will have input as well as our district level leaders and our teachers,” she answered.

But Atkins also added that the current vision is to utilize the space to offer more opportunity to help younger students grow and improve, and better prepare them for when they reach high school.

“I want the best for our students just like all of our parents,” she said.

With the school construction discussion concluded, the board moved on to handling other school district business.