By Stefanie Jackson – The Northampton County Board of Supervisors has borrowed about $25 million to date for a major repair and reconstruction project at Northampton High School, but members recently learned it might cost $35 million.
Northampton County Administrator Charlie Kolakowski asked supervisors at their June 16 meeting to commit to raise the additional funds, not immediately but in the future when the money is needed.
There’s no reason to borrow and pay interest now on funds that will be spent later, he noted during the joint meeting with the Northampton school board.
Moreover, the county may have another option for raising the money that doesn’t involve long-term financing. Northampton is considering a 1-cent sales tax increase that could generate about $1.4 million annually for school capital improvement projects.
Northampton citizens would have to approve the sales tax by a majority vote on a referendum in November.
If the sales tax was approved, “it would put us in an excellent situation,” said Supervisor John Coker. “It changes all the economics around funding education in this county.”
The alternative to the 1-cent sales tax increase would be raising real estate taxes seven or eight cents, “and nobody wants to do that.”
Supervisor Betsy Mapp was skeptical. “Well, it troubles me that this 25 or 35 million will still be debt for the county long after the five of us are dead and gone,” she said, misstating that the term of the $25 million loan was 40 years.
“Twenty years,” Coker corrected. “We’ll still be probably gone,” Mapp joked.
She was also concerned about the county’s debt service – how much it pays on its debts – which stands at approximately $3 million a year.
But Mapp indicated she wouldn’t oppose raising $10 million more for the school project. “I’m not keen on it, but I’m not going to fight you,” she told her fellow supervisors.
The 1-cent sales tax increase would not be permanent; it would last 20 years or until the bonds that are used to fund the school projects are paid, Kolakowski said.
Vice Chairman Dixon Leatherbury wanted assurance that if Northampton County spends $35 million to fix its high school, the building would be maintained and not allowed to return to a state of disrepair.
No supervisor could explain how the high school deteriorated to its present state. (The original portion of the building, built in 1954, is in poor condition and should be demolished, stated architectural firm Waller, Todd & Sadler.)
“As far as I’ve been here, we’ve never turned down capital requests for school improvements,” said Coker, who joined the board of supervisors in 2018.
Neither did former Supervisor Robert Duer recall turning down a school capital request in his four years on the board, Coker said.
“They had just decided that that school was falling down and they wanted a new one, I guess,” Coker said of school officials.
He suggested setting up an annual walkthrough of the high school for the board of supervisors and school board to make sure the building is properly maintained.
School board member Jo Ann Molera spoke up and refuted the suggestion that the high school had fallen into disrepair due to lack of maintenance.
She commended Northampton schools Director of Operations Chris Truckner for his ongoing work maintaining and repairing the county’s schools.
She suggested that the structural issues in the 1954 part of the high school were not due to lack of maintenance but poor planning.
For example, the high school was built with a flat roof that leaks and needs to be replaced – “nobody’s alive, probably, that made that decision,” she said.
Superintendent Eddie Lawrence added that no steel was used to tie the exterior brick wall to the concrete wall behind it, and the structural issues were not the fault of either current board.
“I don’t know that it’s anybody’s fault,” Lawrence said. Coker agreed. “I absolutely did not mean to point the finger at anybody,” he said later.
Lawrence said if supervisors wanted to know if a new and improved Northampton High School would be maintained, “the answer is absolutely, yes.”
After further discussion, Coker made a motion to authorize Waller, Todd & Sadler to proceed with the design phase of the high school project; it was seconded and passed unanimously.