Northampton High School Parents Say County Can’t Afford Not to Build

By Stefanie Jackson — More than a dozen parents and grandparents of current and former Northampton students and other concerned citizens told county supervisors Tuesday night that “we can’t afford it” is “not acceptable” as an answer to the structural issues at Northampton High School that require the facility to be heavily renovated or replaced.

The majority of supervisors are insisting on the cheaper option of heavily renovating the building even though structural engineering firm Speight, Marshall & Francis stated renovation would cost more than 60 percent of the price to rebuild and therefore would be cost prohibitive.

Supervisor Robert Duer spoke for himself and Supervisor Oliver Bennett, saying, “not 100 percent” of supervisors are against the idea of building a new school.

But a continual source of contention for all supervisors is the more than $40 million price tag that could accompany a new high school. 

A funding analysis, presented by financial consulting firm Davenport & Company for supervisors on June 25, assumed a new high school would cost $40.5 million. 

Northampton schools Chief Financial Officer Brook Thomas used data from the Virginia Department of Education to estimate that the school would cost nearly $40.7 million, or about $44 million including engineering costs and a contingency.

During their July 10 meeting, supervisors repeatedly mentioned they did not want to “shackle” or “handcuff” Northampton to a 20-year debt commitment that would result in the county paying $40 million for a high school plus more than $30 million in interest over the life of the loan.

Chairman Spencer Murray dubbed himself and his colleagues “mean old supervisors who must not care about education.”

Supervisor David Fauber asked the school board about funding a new facility: “Your budget is as big as ours, can you finance it on your own?”

Helene Doughty, a Northampton County Education Foundation board member and parent of two Northampton students, one graduate and one 10th grader, was the first citizen to speak about the financial dilemma.

“You may retort with the fact that the county does not have the financial capacity to absorb the cost of the school. Do you have the financial capacity to absorb the cost associated with a structure failure and the injuries and/or death … that may be the result of an accident? 

“Do you have the financial capacity to absorb the cost associated with the casualties due to the lack of shelter for Northampton County citizens following an emergency situation?

“The county has had the financial capacity to build a new court complex, a regional jail, but will not invest in education, therefore the future of its citizens,” Doughty stated.

Lynn Bowen, whose daughter is a Northampton student, said she was thinking about the Latin phrase, “in loco parentis,” referring to the legal obligation of an organization to assume parental responsibility for children in its care, and she believes Northampton’s 702 middle and high school students “are of greater import than the … 25 to 40 million dollars it would cost to build a new school.”

Leslie James, a 16-year Northampton teacher and parent of three current and former Northampton students, is also concerned about safety conditions at the high school. She described her experience there during an in-service training event on Aug. 23, 2011, when an earthquake occurred and she “witnessed the outside wall of that cafeteria wiggle like a worm.” 

“Those were adults in that room at that time. … Imagine if it had been children and something worse had happened.”

If the county had the foresight to start saving for a new school 20 years ago, Tuesday night’s meeting may not have been necessary, James continued.

“Too bad the emphasis was put on the atmosphere of the elected officials and the incarcerated of our county rather than the atmosphere for the education of our children,” she said.

Other speakers also indicated they sensed a disconnect between Northampton supervisors and the school board and its supporters. 

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