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School bond proposal sets stage for legislative fight

House Speaker Tim Moore and other education leaders in the House on Thursday unveiled plans to put a $1.9 billion school construction bond proposal before North Carolina voters next year.

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By
Matthew Burns
, WRAL.com senior producer/politics editor
RALEIGH, N.C. — House Speaker Tim Moore and other education leaders in the House on Thursday unveiled plans to put a $1.9 billion school construction bond proposal before North Carolina voters next year.

If the bond passes, it would provide $1.5 billion for construction and renovation needs for school districts statewide, as well as $200 million each for the University of North Carolina system and the North Carolina Community College System. Community colleges could put money toward technology upgrades in addition to facilities.

"To train our workforce for the needs of tomorrow, we must meet the needs of their classrooms today," Moore, R-Cleveland, said at a news conference announcing the filing of House Bill 241, dubbed the Education Bond Act of 2019.

The last statewide school bond proposal was in 1996, he said, and facilities needs have since then far outstripped counties' abilities to meet them. Many rural counties lack the tax base to pay for new schools, while growing urban districts can't build fast enough. Damage from recent hurricanes and upgraded school security efforts have only accentuated the problem, he said.

Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, who chairs the education budget committee in the House, said many public schools in North Carolina were "built in another time for another purpose," noting technology has changed the way teachers teach and students learn. Schools need to keep pace with those changes, he said.

"We've got the greatest teachers in the nation. It's time we have the greatest buildings in the nation to educate our children," said Rep. Brenden Jones, R-Columbus, who noted that some students in his district attend a school built in 1924.

The legislation spells out how much each school district in the state would receive if the bond passes. The Wake County Public School System would get the most, at $109.6 million, while Elkin City Schools would get the least, at $1.2 million.

About $37 million would be earmarked for Cumberland County Schools, while Durham Public Schools would receive $10 million and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools would get $6.8 million.

Wake County's portion under the bond would be about one-fifth of the size of the $548 million school bond local voters approved last fall. That bond was to help build seven schools, renovate 11 others, buy land for future schools and upgrade security and classroom technology.

The Senate already has passed its own school construction funding plan, eschewing a bond in favor of tapping an existing state fund for construction at state agencies and university campuses in a pay-as-you-go system.

Senate leaders said they don't want the state to take on any more debt and have to make the interest payments bonds would require.

"I don't like debt any more than anyone else," Moore said.

But he criticized the pay-as-you-go idea as counter to North Carolina's traditional model in which counties pay for school buildings and the state pays for personnel. The Senate plan also would tie up state revenue in the future, meaning it couldn't be used to pay for other priorities.

"We really don't need to commit taxpayers to permanent annual support of what has traditionally been a local responsibility," he said.

When asked whether the two competing plans would lead to a stalemate in the legislature, with nothing getting passed, Moore sidestepped the issue with a joke.

"We always get along with the Senate. I'm sure, at the end, everything will come together perfectly," he said.

Gov. Roy Cooper also called for a school construction bond during his State of the State address on Monday.

"Students and teachers across North Carolina need safe, modern classrooms, and a construction bond would let the people decide to invest in new schools and repairs without the risk of harmful budget cuts," Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said in a statement Thursday. "Governor Cooper agrees that a bond is the most responsible and reliable way to fund school construction and renovation."

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