Chowan County Commission voted against discussing a resolution by the Edenton-Chowan Board of Education that supports a November 2020 bond referendum, which would’ve paved the way toward a $61 million high school building project.

BOE’s move to put forth the resolution comes after the commission’s 6-1 vote May 4 to postpone the bond referendum for the high school renovation/replacement project to 2022.

Commission’s decision during Monday’s meeting does not halt the project to renovate/replace John A. Holmes High School, but delays a bond question until at least 2022, the earliest that referendum may be placed on the ballot.

Commission voted, 3-4, striking down a motion to consider discussing the resolution requesting a bond referendum in November. Those voting against the motion were Ron Cummings, Larry McLaughlin, Bob Kirby and Greg Bonner, while those voting in favor were Don Faircloth, Patti Kersey and Ellis Lawrence.

Because of the bond referendum timetables needed to place the measure on the November ballot, the commission’s decision to postpone the matter is final.

Commissioners have long emphasized that the county’s existing bond debt must be retired first in 2024 before any shovel is turned.

Commissioners who want to delay the school project cited concerns about the nation’s economic uncertainties arising from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“While I cannot speak for this entire board, I believe I am correct in saying that we did not take our decision lightly,” Kirby said. “We collectively have come face-to-face with a devastating public health crisis, which according to most indicators we have met with courage and conviction which identifies us as uniquely American. That, however, does not mean we are unscathed. Unemployment rates ultimately could rival those of the Great Depression. Many small businesses, and some not-so-small will ultimately shutter their doors forever. The State of North Carolina is facing a revenue shortfall in the range of $1.5 to $2.5 billion, and state grant money is ‘no longer on the table.’ Just as we have since I was sworn in back in December 2018, the Chowan County Board of Commissioners remains committed to the high school, and to a groundbreaking in 2024, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.”

Commissioners who supported the resolution seeking a 2020 bond initiative think the voters know best so they should have the earliest opportunity to decide the fate of the school building project.

“I wanted to put this thing in the hands of the voters,” Commissioner Ellis Lawrence said.

Since 2018, the commission and BOE have worked together to formulate a plan to repair/replace the high school and hired a bond counsel along with a general contractor, M.B. Kahn Construction. Two public meetings were held to gauge public support for the project. Commissioners/BOE chose JAHHS’ present site as the location for the project.

Edenton-Chowan Board of Education Chairman Gene Jordan expressed his surprise and dismay about how this latest move by the commission will slow the momentum toward repairing/replacing the high school.

“This was a surprise to us not just because it was unexpected, but because it brought to a halt the momentum that we’ve been working toward for a goal that I feel that we all aspire to – that goal being a new high school. That momentum was momentum that we had built jointly, working together, but with the vote, that came to a halt,” he said.

Jordan said during his 21-year tenure serving the BOE, the board has understood the need to build a new high school but circumstances always got in the way. He hoped that because of the availability of state funding, low interest rates and a unity of purpose that the “stars were aligned” this time to move this project forward sooner rather than later.

“As I think about all the students who have gone through the schools since I’ve served on the Board of Education, it’s always been an understanding with me that on the Board of Education we had to do our best because every student has one opportunity to go to kindergarten, one opportunity to attend first grade and every student has one opportunity to be a senior in high school. These are important times – they matter,” he said.

When addressing the economic climate arising from COVID-19, Jordan said the project would provide a badly needed boost in economic development – up to 125 workers hired for the project.

“We’ve had the need for a long time, not just the need for a new high school – I don’t recall a time when Chowan County needed economic development more than it needs it right now. A new high school would be a shot in the arm to economic development no doubt,” he said.

Rick Ott, senior executive vice president of M.B. Kahn Construction, spoke of how the project’s economics may change if the project is put on hold. He said the potential to secure $26 million in state funding may not be as readily available in the future as this money may be passed along to other school systems in need.

Ott said on average, annual construction costs increase between four to six percent. When adding those costs to the historic low interest rates – that may not be in place two years from now – the project would cost a bare minimum of $5 million more and possibly as much as $7.5 million – additional money the taxpayers would pay in interest but not for a single brick more.

“I’ve been working in North Carolina school construction since 1986,” Ott said. “I have not seen a time when there have seen more favorable conditions to build a school with minimal impact to the taxpayers.”

Superintendent Rob Jackson gave an impassioned speech about how zipcodes should not determine educational opportunity. He said when athletic teams visit other schools, students always ask, “‘Why don’t we have this or that?’ I can tell you that breaks your heart.”

Jackson said during his seven years as superintendent, he’s heard many people ask about when – if – their kids would be able to attend classes in a new high school.

“I’ve heard over and over stories of grandparents saying I thought my children were going to go to the new high school and now I’m hoping my grandchildren will go to the new high school. This has been a project that time after time something has happened and it has gotten pushed down the road. Well something has happened now and it is a pandemic,” he said. “When I’m voting, I believe in America and Chowan County. This something happened, but I still believe that based on the current pandemic that is going on now in terms of interest rates, etc. that this is the opportunity to move forward that becomes a shot in the arm for our county. We know it is an opportunity for our students.”

While noting the disparity in school funding, Jackson challenged the commission to take advantage of this opportunity to build a new school.

“Zipcodes should not be the determination to opportunity not in our state where the constitution of our state guarantees a sound basic education,” he said. “If we have the opportunity to do right by the children in Chowan County, we should take that opportunity. I don’t want to lose that opportunity because our children are worth it. They are worthy of our very best efforts.”

When explaining his vote against the resolution, Commissioner Bonner said he voted independently and “no one encouraged me in any way, discouraged me in any way.”

Bonner reflected back on the county’s precarious financial position – days when the county was perched on the edge of bankruptcy for various reasons including the Great Recession.

“I recollect on 2006/08 more so than anything else when our county was basically bankrupt,” he said. “We see our future, but what is foreseeable at this point and time is that our country is in the worst shape that it has ever been in because of COVID-19 with unemployment rates as high as they are, businesses closing, people are struggling – never heard of lines of people just getting food to eat.”

Bonner said that while he is supportive of the project, perhaps a cautious approach is best as the county and nation navigate the challenging economic tide ahead.

“I want this project to move forward and I think the presentations in support of 2020 were excellent, however, I represent people of Chowan County and even folks working for the school system. For me, this is just not the time,” he said. “I’m not afraid to tell anyone that I’m fearful if we go forward with this size of project where the taxpayers are to be responsible. Though there are a lot of benefits and opportunities to build at this time, until I can see clearly where we are headed, I can’t vote for this project.”

Commissioner Larry McLaughlin shared Bonner’s sentiment adding, “I’m in favor of upgrading and building a new high school, I think the benefit is there, however the timing is not right for Chowan County.”

McLaughlin said because of the pandemic, there may be new ways students are educated via technology, homeschooling may become more popular and there may be an increase in population in Chowan County as people leave urban areas and seek out smaller towns and rural areas, all changes that will affect the school system. Approval of Timbermill’s wind farm may bring in additional tax revenue too.

“We don’t know what the future holds,” he said.

Staff writer Miles Layton can be reached at mlayton@ncweeklies.com