By Stefanie Jackson – Northampton County borrowed $25 million for repairs and new construction at Northampton High School – following more than a decade of debate with the school board and two opinions from architectural firms on the condition of the building – but it’s not nearly enough money.
A study conducted by architectural firm Waller, Todd, & Sadler, of Virginia Beach, considered the $25 million borrowed to date and concluded “there was a shortfall of potentially up to approximately $10 million,” said Northampton Finance Director John Chandler during the May 12 supervisors meeting.
“We’re at a crossroads,” Chandler said.
Northampton borrowed the money about six months ago, when interest rates were low – between 2.5% and 3%. The $25 million figure was chosen in hopes of keeping the county’s debt service near current levels. (The total borrowed was more than $28 million, including interest and fees.)
Supervisor Betsy Mapp said “$10 million is a lot over budget. … The previous board voted to allow $25 million. That seems like … plenty to do the project.”
County Administrator Charlie Kolakowski explained that the single largest factor in the $10 million cost increase was the addition of renovations to Northampton High School’s Career and Technical Education building, at a cost of about $4 million.
“Given the economy of the Shore, given the future of the economy and where we can expect our students to be getting careers and career opportunities … the improvements there could be a significant part of the economic future for our students,” he said.
“I think the board and the committee that’s working on this feel that it’s a significant contribution to the overall educational opportunities” for students, Kolakowski continued.
“In addition, when we came up with the $25 million, quite frankly, we were a little bit pressed for time because of the borrowing window that we were looking at, and we looked at it saying that would be a good base amount to start with,” he said.
Kolakowski said the committee had also discussed possibly using money from the county and school division’s capital reserve funds.
“I think that the $25 million was really looked upon as a base number but not as the overall do all, end all of the budget for the project.”
About $2.5 million of the additional $10 million would cover a major overhaul of the high school auditorium, Chandler estimated.
Supervisor John Coker said the engineers “originally thought they could renovate it, but they said they had to take a close at it and decided it didn’t make sense.”
Renovating the auditorium would have cost nearly as much as rebuilding it, Coker said.
The extra $10 million also includes the cost to construct a separate building on campus for Northampton Middle School (which currently is housed in the high school), and the sixth grade can be moved from the elementary schools to the middle school.
The middle and high school will continue to share a cafeteria, gym, and other common areas.
Chandler agreed that the $25 million already borrowed was not set as the entire budget for the high school project.
“The board is going to have to decide. (Are) you going to do the complete project and have the school in a very good, tip top shape for the future – and with the programs that the community and the school system are looking for – or are we going to do it in pieces and parts?” he asked.
“How do you feel about us getting even deeper in debt?” Mapp asked Chandler. “I mean, we already owe 50-some million dollars, and that’s not chicken feed.”
But Northampton County may be able to create a new revenue stream that would allow it to sustain more debt.
Kolakowski noted Northampton is considering a one-cent sales tax that could generate up to $1.4 million in annual revenue exclusively for school capital improvement projects.
The sales tax would help alleviate the county’s heavy reliance on real estate tax revenue to fund those projects.
One cent of every dollar spent in the county would be set aside for public school construction and renovation.
About 50% of Northampton’s sales tax revenue “comes from people that are not citizens of Northampton County,” Chandler said.
Before the new sales tax can take effect, it must be proposed in a bill during a Virginia General Assembly session, passed by both houses, signed by the governor, presented as a referendum in a general election, and approved by a majority of voters.
Halifax County – a small county in southern Virginia that needed to raise at least $88 million to repair its high school – successfully completed the process last year.
For Northampton, a one-cent sales tax increase is roughly equivalent to a seven-cent real estate tax increase, Chandler confirmed.
Chairman Oliver Bennett suggested setting up a “face-to-face” meeting between county supervisors and the school board, possibly at the high school.
The meeting would give members of both boards the opportunity “to discuss whether this is a sustainable level of expenditures and a reasonable amount of money to spend for the product you’ll be getting,” Kolakowski said.
“With the numbers of students dropping like a rock, here we are tying up all of our money in the schools when we should be doing economic development so that we get more people,” Mapp said.
Supervisor David Fauber said, “Whether it’s 25 or 35 (million dollars) … I don’t think we can just brush the school project aside. Something’s got to be done.”
The public meeting is expected to be held in approximately two to three weeks and will be advertised in advance as required by law.