Could a consolidated elementary school come to Washington?

Published 2:00 pm Tuesday, October 24, 2023

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Washington could see construction of a new school for the first time in 16 years. That is, if the local Board of Education and Board of County Commissioners can work together to apply for a $42 million grant from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI). 

John Cotten Tayloe and Eastern Elementary could be combined to establish a pre-kindergarten through third grade elementary school in Washington, according to Dr. Matthew Cheeseman, Superintendent of Beaufort County Schools. 

The proposed new elementary school could be located behind Eastern Elementary which means the county would not have to purchase another piece of land. 

Currently, there are three elementary schools in Washington – Eastern, John Small and John Cotten Tayloe. 

During the 2021-2022 academic year, Eastern Elementary had 460 students who were in one of three grades levels – pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and first grade. Eighty-one students were in pre-kindergarten, 191 students were in kindergarten but 188 students were in first grade, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. 

In that same academic year, John Cotten Tayloe had 436 students in either second or third grade. They had 216 students in second grade, but had 220 in third grade. 

Again, in the same academic year, John Small had 470 students in either fourth or fifth grades. There were 231 fourth graders, but 239 fifth graders. 

According to Beaufort County Schools, there were 1225 students across the three schools for the 2022-2023 academic year, and enrollment stays around that number. 

Cheeseman explained that before Beaufort County Schools combined with Washington City Schools in 1969, the schools were structured so that students changed schools every two years. When the two organizations combined, that structure persisted. 

“Imagine being a fifth grader who has to change schools every two years walking through Washington,” Cheeseman said. 

Cheeseman said a consolidated school could help students’ educational progress and a new school building would replace two buildings built around the 1960’s. 

“Students deserve the best opportunity that you can give them, and the opportunity to give it to them is from the state and lottery system that’s going to say, ‘let’s really try to do this for you,’” Cheeseman said. “I’m not certain of any parent that would argue with the fact that their child is worth giving the best possible opportunity of education and environment.” 

In Beaufort County, four schools were constructed in the 1950’s, two in the 1960’s, one in the 1980’s but five in the early 2000’s. The oldest school building is Chocowinity Primary School at 71 years, but the most recent is John Small Elementary at 16 years. The average age of school buildings in Beaufort County is around 45 years old, according to the school district. 

The grant in question is the Needs Based Public School Building Capital Fund (NBPSCF) which opens for applications on Nov. 13. The grant is designed to help county governments address public school building needs, according to NCDPI. Since 2006, funding for this grant has come from the North Carolina Education Lottery. School districts whose adjusted market value is less than $40 billion may be eligible to apply for this grant. All but six North Carolina counties are eligible for this grant. (Buncombe, Durham, Forsyth, Guilford, Mecklenburg, New Hanover and Wake Counties are not eligible.) 

According to the Department of Revenue, Beaufort County Schools’ assessed real estate value is $4,061,262,072, but their adjusted market value is $5,013,284,869 for fiscal year 2023-2024. 

Should the Board of Education and Board of County Commissioners decide to pursue this grant, the commissioners would be required to pony up a minimum 5% local match. At this time, it is unclear whether the local match is related to the value of the grant or the total project cost. Beaufort County Schools is working to get this clarified. The Daily News also contacted NC DPI for clarification, but did not receive a response by press time. 

If the local match is related to the value of the grant, then county commissioners would be required to contribute about $2.1 million for a $42 million grant.  

The grant’s value increased by $12 million from the previous budget cycle, according to Cheeseman who said the North Carolina General Assembly allocated more money in a state budget they passed earlier this month. The General Assembly approves the North Carolina Department of Instruction’s annual budget. 

The school system can apply for smaller grants to do renovations to current school buildings, and the Board of Education has considered that option for other schools in the district, Cheeseman said. 

Cheeseman presented the idea at a meeting between the Beaufort County Board of Education and Beaufort County Commissioners on Wednesday, Oct. 18. 

Chairman of the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners, Frankie Waters said after the meeting that the board and the Beaufort County Board of Education will work together to get the grant and build a new school. 

“We owe that to the taxpayers of Beaufort County when the state says, ‘we’ve got $42 million available,’” Waters said. “It just makes good sense for us to be able to do that.” 

Waters said the commissioners will be discussing the grant for the next several months. At this time, a discussion about the grant is not scheduled for the commissioners’ next meeting on Nov. 6.