Tuesday’s Northampton Board of Supervisors meeting was the scene of yet another rage event, this time by proponents of building a new high school complex. The cost estimate to build a new complex is over $40 million, adding debt service, the final cost could reach $70 million. That is not going to happen any time soon. The reality is that the school has some issues, but like Mark Twain, reports of its demise are exaggerated. Funding for a new school may happen someday, but the immediate need is to spend $10 to $12 million to fix what we have. Sources have also told the Mirror that the BoS has grown weary of Superintendent Eddie Lawrence’s hucksterism surrounding the school and that they are ready to roll up their sleeves and start addressing the problems.
In response, Chairman Murray issued the following statement on the high school:
“A decade ago when Machipongo School was still operating the back wall of the High School was repaired at the cost of $1 million. Fourteen classrooms were closed and temporary classrooms were installed to allow for the construction work to be accomplished during the school year. Machipongo Middle School was still operating.
Later there were issues with the cafeteria wall discovered and repaired. Numerous repairs to the roof and other maintenance items have been accomplished as prescribed by a plan developed by the School Board and agreed to by the Supervisors.
What is needed now is another PLAN that is both realistically staged and financially responsible.
A realistic plan will not emerge until the School Board and School Administration come to grips with the fact that the Board of Supervisors is not going to handcuff Northampton County by borrowing $40.5 million for a new High School/Middle School complex. Borrowing at that level will obligate the County over the next 20 years to $71.8 million in principle and interest in one scenario, with no new capital or services possible. I know it’s easy to blame the mean old supervisors who must not care for education.
Are there other plans that should be explored? First, let’s consider some facts:
- Student enrollment in 2018 (including Pre-K and private school students who receive some serves from Northampton Schools) was 1631 student. Of that total population, bu929 are at Kiptopeke Elementary School and Occohannock Elementary School. The remaining 702 students are broken down as 248 in Middle School and 454 in High School.
- With those facts should we be asking ourselves why it will cost $40 million to build a new High School/ Middle School for 702 students even in a stable student population? Should we all be looking at all options including repairs to the High School as done before? Yes, it is an aged building that needs work but our student population has not outgrown it.
- Should we consider renovation of the Machipongo Middle School with new heating and cooling infrastructure, upgraded auditorium, cafeteria, and using the existing gym, athletic fields, and Tech Center that we already own? At a cost of approximately $5 to $7 million that option would increase operating costs but perhaps less than the debt service on $40 million and if feasible, it would provide a nearer term option for only 248 Middle School students. It is one option of many if we expand our thinking.
- Where is the staging plan? A complex cannot be built over three summer months. What about issues like the water and sewer drain fields?
If borrowing $40 million, obligating the County to over $70 million in new debt, is not feasible, then a new look at all possible structural engineering options and costs should be undertaken to lead to an achievable plan.
If the recent budget cycle showed anything it showed that when the School Board and School Administration are fully transparent with the facts and the financials these Supervisors give every penny the taxpayers can afford to the schools. For FY 19 this resulted in a $412,000 increase in funding year over year for teacher raises and probably $500,000 added to the School Capital Fund when the numbers settle out. In short, these Supervisors gave every penny of the last fiscal years’ $705,071 under budget school dollars back to the School board to use for raises and to increase the Capital Fund.
Right now, it seems the School Board and Administration are solely focused on convincing the Supervisors to borrow $40 million. Speaking solely as one supervisor, I do not see that on any near-term horizon.
Meanwhile, the schools, including the two elementary schools, need to be maintained using the almost $3 million in the School Capital Fund 395. The lobbying for unrealistic options should stop.
This Board of Supervisors remains ready to explore all options that do not push Northampton to the brink of bankruptcy. We will continue to give every available tax dollar to the School Board and Administration. The Board understands and appreciates the complexity of the issues faced by the School Board and Administration. This Board understands and appreciates the complexity of the issues faced by the School Board and Administration as we face some also. We want to work together for solutions that move Northampton forward.”
Spencer Murray, Chairman
Northampton County Board of Supervisors