By Stefanie Jackson – The “Yes for Northampton Schools” campaign is underway to inform Northampton voters about a proposal to increase the county’s sales tax rate by 1% to help pay for about $35 million in renovations and new construction needed at Northampton High School.
The upgrades will improve both the physical condition of the building and the educational opportunities the school can provide to build a better local workforce.
“Good schools are known to be really good economic development drivers, and clearly, in Northampton County, we need all the economic development drivers we can (get),” Northampton supervisor John Coker told the Eastern Shore Post Sept. 8.
When Northampton voters go to the polls on Election Day this November, they will participate in a referendum by voting “yes” or “no” to increase the sales tax by one penny on the dollar to fund repairing and rebuilding local public schools.
Coker noted the county has already borrowed about $25 million for the Northampton High School project while interest rates are low – below 3%.
The sales tax increase was proposed as a way of paying for the $35 million project without raising property taxes and making Northampton’s taxpayers foot the entire bill for it.
Because Northampton’s economy is based largely on tourism, non-residents pay 43% of the sales taxes collected in the county.
Northampton citizens pay the other 47% of sales taxes collected, but those sales taxes aren’t charged on “normal cost-of-living type things” like groceries, medicines, and cars, Coker pointed out.
Sales taxes are charged on some necessary items like clothing and furniture, he noted.
The one-cent sales tax increase won’t pay for the entire cost of the high school project, but it will cover the majority of it.
It is estimated that the one-cent sales tax increase will generate an additional $1.4 million in county revenue every year. (The estimate was made prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The sales tax increase would be in effect for 20 years, which is also the term of the existing $25 million construction loan. If the sales tax increase generated an extra $1.4 million a year for 20 years, that would cover $28 million of the $35 million project.
The remaining $7 million would be paid out of Northampton’s general fund.
If the referendum passes, the 20-year period will begin July 1, 2021, the first day of the next fiscal year.
Coker credits the idea for the one-cent sales tax to Del. Rob Bloxom, who brought it to the attention of Northampton supervisors last year when Halifax County, Virginia, made the same proposal to its voters to help pay for an $88 million high school project.
The Halifax County referendum passed in November 2019 with 71% of voters saying “yes” to a one-cent sales tax increase to fund public school capital improvements.
The revenue Northampton would get from the one-cent sales tax would be kept separate from the county’s general fund, and the money could be used only for school capital improvements, not teacher salaries or other school expenses.
Coker has talked to more than 100 Northampton citizens about the sales tax proposal, and he agreed that people young and old, with and without children or grandchildren in school, support the idea once they realize what it means for them.
“The older people, a lot of them say,‘Gee, I don’t have any kids in school, why do I have to pay this?’” Coker said.
“And then you explain to them, ‘Listen, the state of Virginia requires that we have schools, OK, and that we have to pay for those schools … so we have to do this.”
“And what we’re suggesting here is that this (referendum) is a way to do it … so the people of Northampton County can get away with not paying 45% of it … because we have a tourism economy here,” Coker said.
“Without exception … and I’ve talked to over 100 people … once I explain what we’re doing and what the money’s going to be used for, and all of that, they say that makes all the sense in the world,” Coker said.
Northampton High School was built in 1954, and an addition was built in 1978.
Much of the original 1954 building – particularly the cafeteria and auditorium – is in such poor condition that renovation would cost as much or more than demolition and new construction, so the decision was made to start “from scratch” in those areas, Coker said.
Most of the 1978 addition can be renovated.
Another reason to do the project is to build a separate space for Northampton Middle School, which is currently housed within the walls of the high school.
“The two student bodies should never have been intermixed” according to “all the experts,” Coker said.
New construction will include a separate building for the middle school on the high school campus. The buildings will be connected, but middle and high school students will rarely cross paths, Coker said.
Northampton’s county and school officials have been considering floor plans for the new high school and middle school complex and have narrowed down their choices to two or three options.
If all goes well, the project could go out for bid by the end of the year, with construction possibly beginning next summer. The entire project will take two to three years to complete, Coker said.
The building has been inspected by a structural engineering firm, and it is safe and will be kept safe for students until the new construction is complete, Coker assured constituents.
“We never want anyone to be unsafe for a second,” he said.