House weighs statewide school bond

A key state House committee signed off Tuesday on a proposal to put a $1.9 billion school construction bond on the ballot in November 2018.

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Laura Leslie
RALEIGH, N.C. — The House K-12 Education Committee signed off Tuesday on a proposal to put a $1.9 billion school construction bond on the ballot for voter approval in November 2018.
House Bill 866 would allocate money to each county based on a formula that includes average student population and expected growth, as well as the size of the county and its ability to raise its own funds for school construction. Larger, more prosperous counties would be required to match the bond funds, while smaller and low-wealth counties would not.

Figures from the state Department of Public Instruction for the 2015-16 school year estimate the capital need statewide at just over $8 billion, from new construction to renovations and additions to existing schools.

When the state lottery was passed in 2005, state leaders earmarked a substantial portion of the proceeds for school construction, but during the recession, state lawmakers changed the formula to supply more money for teachers and less for construction.

According to DPI, the lottery has supplied only $588 million in capital funding since 2012, and three-quarters of that money has been spent on debt service.

Rep. Jimmy Dixon, R-Duplin, said he supports the bond but said the changes in the lottery formula left schools empty-handed.

"According to my calculations, the local school systems should have received an additional $648 million that they did not receive," Dixon said.

"It seems that, when the lottery was passed, that it was a panacea and was sold that way," replied primary bill sponsor Rep. Linda Johnson, R-Cabarrus. "It was not a panacea, and our growth and the recession have caused a lot of this.

"We’re all equally responsible," she added, "but we’re also all responsible to help."

Leanne Winner, director of governmental relations for the North Carolina School Boards Association, told the committee that, even if the original lottery formula were reinstated, "it would take us 40 years" to catch up with the need for capital funding.

Since the 1950s, Winner said, state lawmakers have approved a school construction bond about once every decade to help counties build schools. But the last such bond was in 1996 – 21 years ago.

School superintendents from large and small counties also spoke in favor of the proposed bond, detailing the needs in their districts.

Chris Lowder from Cabarrus County Schools said his district is expected to add about 1,000 students a year for the next decade at an anticipated capital cost of nearly $600 million over that time.

Frank Till from Cumberland County Schools said next year's class size reductions will cost his district "$7 million we don't have."

Jones County Superintendent Michael Bracy told the committee that his low-wealth county's high school is 66 years old, but raising the property tax to fund a new one isn't feasible.

"One cent for me [in higher property tax rates] would accumulate $83,000," Bracy said.

Rep. Charles Graham, D-Robeson, called the proposal "somewhat of a Band-Aid approach" but said it's badly needed in his home county, where flooding from Hurricane Matthew destroyed an elementary school and the board of education building.

"My county was in great need prior to the storm, and now we’re in greater need after," Graham told the committee. "It’s timely. It’s not enough, but it’s a step in the right direction."

The proposal passed the committee on a voice vote with no apparent opposition. Its next stop is the House Finance Committee.

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