BCS awarded $42 million grant for new elementary school

Published 3:47 pm Thursday, February 8, 2024

Beaufort County Schools was awarded a $42 million Needs Based Public School Capital Fund (NBPSCF) grant from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction for the construction of a new, consolidated elementary school in Washington. The grant was presented by State Superintendent Catherine Truitt on Wednesday during a joint meeting between the Beaufort County Board of Education and the Board of Beaufort County Commissioners. 

“I know that consolidation can be a difficult decision, but in the case of Beaufort County as it relates specifically to other applications that have come to the department as well as the legislative mandate that we consider alongside county and tier status which is important as well as a county’s ability to generate tax revenue – I am very happy to let you all know that you have been awarded $42 million,” Truitt said. 

Educators at Eastern Elementary and John Small Elementary clapped and cheered when Truitt made the announcement. 

The grant will be used to combine Eastern Elementary and John Cotten Tayloe. The goal is to have a new, 135,000 sq. ft. elementary school open for the 2026-2027 school year. The new school will serve approximately 1,000 students. 

Right now, elementary school students in Washington attend pre-kindergarten at Eastern then transfer to John Cotten Tayloe for second and third grades then transfer again to John Small for fourth and fifth grades. John Small Elementary shares a campus with P.S. Jones Middle School. 

“…Research is very clear that when students have to continually change schools that they experience an academic slide, a social slide and so it’s absolutely beneficial to students to not have to change schools,” Truitt said. She continued to explain that across the nation, it’s customary for students to transition to new buildings when they enter middle school then high school. She said even those transfers can be “difficult on students,” 

“To ask students to do that within elementary school…That’s a lot to ask of students and their families,” Truitt said.  

According to both Superintendent of Beaufort County Schools Dr. Matthew Cheeseman and County Commissioner Frankie Waters, getting the grant has been a three year project. 

In 2021, Waters attended a conference hosted by the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners  where education and safety were discussed. He, Cheeseman and County Manager Brian Alligood later discussed the possibility of a consolidated school. Cheeseman recommended that both boards should wait until the school system was able to write a robust application. 

“So three years later – I’m excited, but let’s look at two years from now and we’ll be even more excited,” Cheeseman said. 

T.W. Allen, chairman of the school board, said seeing Truitt with the check was “emotional for us as a school board, but for Beaufort County, it’s a great day. $42 million in lottery funds coming back to this county – that’s a great day.” 

Money used for the grant comes from the North Carolina Education Lottery; therefore, taxpayers money is not required and will not be used, Truitt said. In total, the lottery raised an estimated $258 million that was appropriated by the North Carolina General Assembly to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction to award grants to school districts statewide. 

Truitt shared that there was nearly $1 billion worth of money asked by school districts across the state this legislative session, and that $1 billion has been given to school districts over the years. 

Beaufort County Schools’ application was prioritized above applications from other school districts, because it involved consolidation of two schools, addressed school safety and the new school will share land where Eastern Elementary currently exists at address, Truitt said. 

“The goal of the North Carolina Education Lottery through the state legislature is to build one new school in every county in North Carolina. It was our turn and the fact that we’re a Tier 1 county and the fact that we’re consolidating two schools and it makes it safer – we rose to the top. There’s no question about that,” Waters said. 

The new school will have one point of entry which is the new school safety standard to reduce the number of violent incidents that could occur. This design is entirely different from Eastern Elementary’s current design. Built in the 1960’s, the campus has several “pods” or buildings that students have to walk to and from. One of the dangers is that students have to walk to another building to go to the restroom or to gym class. 

Representative Keith Kidwell was in attendance at the check presentation. He shared that as a parent of students who attended elementary schools in Washington, it was a “somewhat difficult” transition from one elementary school to the next for his children and family. “That transition does create a lot of problems,” he said. Kidwell added that he is in full support of the project and will do what he can to make it happen. 

Truitt, who visited Eastern Elementary, in her opinion, saw a campus that was clearly unsafe for children.  

Truitt, a former middle school and high school English teacher, shared the things that were running through her mind as she saw photos of and visited Eastern Elementary. Those were multiple points of entry at the school which is a school safety concern, the 60-year-old campus not being ADA compliant while wanting “students to have the best learning environment possible.” 

Having a safer school is on the wishlist of Melissa Rivenbark, a first grade teacher at Eastern Elementary. She has taught at Eastern Elementary for seven years.  “Just a safe place for everybody, for our children to grow and be able to visit their former teachers and know that they are in a safe place.” 

The check “brought tears” to her eyes, Rivenbark shared. She and fellow teachers are “very excited” about the new school. 

The Beaufort County Board of Commissioners were in attendance to vote on pledging a $10 million local match which is required for the Needs Based Public School Capital Fund grant.  Waters said the county can “comfortably” handle its part in paying $10 million with cash. 

“We’re very fortunate with our fund balance now – we’re a little over 45%. So, we can handle our portion with cash without going to a lender…I can say that we comfortably can handle our part,” Waters told Truitt.  

Which they voted in favor of 5-2. Commissioners Frankie Waters, Jerry Langley, Ed Booth, Randy Walker and John Rebholz voted in favor, but Commissioners Hood Richardson and Stan Deatherage voted in opposition. 

“It takes both boards to do something this big,” Walker said. His wife, Carolyn, is a member of the Board of Education. Commissioner Booth’s wife, Eltha, is also a member of the Board of Education. He added that both boards seem to work well together. “We’re going to be working together. I’ve already been told by some of the school board members we’re going to be very much a part of this design plan as we get into that so that’s important.” 

Richardson and Deatherage believe the grant money could be better used to improve existing campuses at Eastern Elementary and John Cotten Tayloe Elementary. 

Truitt “applauded” county commissioners for “doing the right thing” by voting in favor of the grant, because consolidation is oftentimes “not a popular thing to do.”

For the next two academic years, students will attend Eastern Elementary and John Cotten Tayloe just as they have always done. Parents of students who will attend the new elementary school should expect to see requests for their input on the design of the new school, Cheeseman said. 

Hite Associates, out of Greenville, has been selected as the architect for the new school. Their portfolio includes elementary, middle and high schools across Eastern North Carolina as well as facilities for Pitt County Community College, healthcare facilities and churches. Their portfolio includes the George H. and Laura E. Brown Library in Washington.