NC school districts report billions more in facility needs than ever before

It's also far more than the state provides for school construction and far more than the amount schools raise locally for school construction.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina’s public school districts say they need $12.8 billion over the next five years to build, improve or repair their facilities — nearly $5 billion more than districts reported needing just five years ago.

It’s also far more than the state provides for school construction and far more than the amount schools raise locally for school construction. In the last five years, the state has provided $838 million in capital funds, generated primarily through the Education Lottery. Also in the last five years, 17 counties have passed local bond referenda for school capital needs, totaling nearly $3.4 billion in debt locally.

What those funds will pay for isn’t included in the survey’s reported $12.8 billion in needs.

“Had that money not been there, it would have been $17 billion in needs,” State Board of Education Vice Chairman Alan Duncan noted, during a presentation of the report Tuesday.

By state law, North Carolina’s counties are responsible for paying for physical school infrastructure.

The 2020 Facility Needs Survey was presented to the North Carolina State Board of Education on Wednesday.

Educators say facility needs can take time and attention away from teaching and learning, creating further problems.

Compiled this year based on estimations from 2020, the report doesn’t break down whether needs from the last survey were carried over into the new survey, if not addressed during the last five years. Districts were asked not to include cost estimate for any projects already underway.

The jump in reported needs this time far exceeds the amounts reported this century, when total school facility needs ranged in five-year surveys between $6 billion and $10 billion.

But reports have potentially been undercutting actual needs and listing only the most prescient needs, North Carolina Department of Public Instruction School Planning Section Chief Nathan Maune told the board.

After the last survey, a third party studied, and visited, every building in nine of the state’s 115 non-tribal public school districts. They found $630 million in needs in those school districts, but those same districts reported only $287 million in needs the year before.

“So if that’s any indication, the difference between what’s self-reported and what’s out there is very large and very significant,” Maune said.

This year, five districts reported no needs, and DPI doesn’t know why.

About half of the needs identified are for new schools or additions to existing schools, and about half of new schools needed are elementary schools.

The needs are partly driven by expected enrollment growth in parts of the state and schools’ plan to create more classes to reduce class size from kindergarten through the third grades. The reduction in class size is required per a state law passed in the last few years that has already partially gone into effect.

Nearly all of the rest of the needs identified by school districts are for renovations, including $693.6 million to improve HVAC systems and $473 million to repair roofs.

But it’s not clear how COVID-19 might have impacted districts’ survey responses and thus, what districts can use federal COVID-19 stimulus funds to address.

Schools already have ventilation standards higher than many types of buildings, though it’s unclear whether districts are all fully meeting those standards.

The survey does not reflect COVID-19-related price increases or supply chain issues. However, construction costs have been rising steeply for several years. So the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, which administers the survey, had schools calculate their construction needs based on a rate of $250 per square foot — up from $194 per square foot during the 2015-16 survey.

Prior facility needs reports show several reasons for the 58.7% jump in reported needs.

The biggest increase in needs, in dollars and percent change is about $2.5 billion in renovation costs, an 81.8% increase — now totaling $5.6 billion. Districts reported needing $2.1 billion more this time around in new school construction costs — now totaling about $4.8 billion.

HVAC and roof repair needs more than doubled since the last report, up from $342.6 million and $222.2 million, respectively. The other big increase in renovation costs was parking and driveway needs, rising from $111.4 million to $205.6 million.

The Charlotte-Mecklenberg Schools reported $1.2 billion in construction needs during the next five years, up from $390.4 million five years ago. Guilford County Schools reported $1.2 billion in construction needs, too, up from $686.9 million five years ago. The Wake County Public School System’s reported construction needs rose by less than $300 million, to $1.1 billion. All three counties approved local school bond issues in the last five years, each totaling hundreds of millions of dollars, though less than the reported construction needs.