Funding needed for NC schools’ capital upgrades

Legislators suggest a $2 billion K12 Bond referendum

Each year schools across Macon County submit funding requests to the Board of Education to address capital outlay needs within the district. Requests range in severity as well as financial need but are all made with the best interest of students in mind. 

This year’s complete capital outlay request submitted to the board exceeded three million dollars – and even the prioritized list topped $2 million. 

While the needs remain to be great year after year, the funding to address the infrastructure needs in the district just don’t exist. 

Macon County Commissioners regularly allocate a half a million dollars for capital expenses, above and beyond their $6 million contribution to general operating costs of the school system, but with aging buildings and a growing student population, it rarely even puts a dent in the district’s needs. 

The top request from Highlands school followed a national trend of addressing school security by requesting fencing to enclose the campus which sits just off the roadside. The Highlands fencing request was paired with a request from South Macon Elementary for the same, with early estimates of the joint project falling just under $60,000. Members of the board found fencing to be a priority, but whether or not the project will make the final cut remains to be seen. 

Like Franklin High School, Highlands School also requested funding to cover walkways throughout the school’s campus so students aren’t walking from building to building in the rain. The total request for both Franklin High School and Highlands School was estimated to cost $145,000 with board members prioritizing $100,000 to begin the project in phases.

For the last several years Highlands School has requested funds to install stage lighting on the stage in the gym. The project is estimated to cost $30,000 and is needed for both functionality to properly utilize the space for students as well as safety for when the stage is being used. However, as in years past, the project was not deemed a priority and has already been nixed from this year’s consideration list. 

Macon County’s struggle to balance the needs of school infrastructure against available funding options isn’t unique. In fact, the North Carolina General Assembly has been grappling with the issue for years, most recently proposing a $2 billion K12 Bond referendum to address capital outlay needs across the state. 

House Speaker Tim Moore originally proposed the $1.9 billion bond, which immediately garnered support from Macon County House Rep. Kevin Corbin. Moore’s idea is backed by Governor Roy Cooper, who readdressed the idea during his State of the State address at the end of last month.  

“Right now, four in 10 public schools in our state are at least 50 years old,” Cooper said. “That means they’re still using the schools you and I went to.”

Other Republicans in the General Assembly have countered Moore’s bond proposal to address school construction needs without increasing the state’s debt load. 

The legislation proposed by Republicans is a starting point to address the crisis unfolding across the state. House Bill 241 (which would issue bonds to fund school capital needs) and Senate Bill 5 (which earmarks General Fund revenue to public school capital) – differ in how they would pay for increased school construction but share two common features:

Both plans would reduce funding for state needs other than school construction. Neither plan raises additional revenue, so paying for school construction necessarily means reductions in other areas of the budget, including funding for K-12 education.

While potentially making an important contribution, neither option will meet all of the needs facing the state’s public schools nor address school building needs beyond the next decade.

The bonds proposed by Moore’s H.B. 241 would likely provide public schools with the greatest benefit, but neither of the current proposals would raise additional revenue to pay for school construction needs and therefore ensure an ongoing solution to the challenge of financing capital needs. 

Without raising additional revenues, servicing the debt on a school bond or increasing General Fund earmarks for school building appropriations will force more cuts in other areas, including education.

“If I didn’t believe that this was a fiscally responsible approach; that this was a way that actually is a fiscally conservative approach for taxpayers, you wouldn’t see me standing before you advocating for this,” Moore said.

In the past, school districts have mostly relied on money raised locally in the county. It’s been 20 years since the state has stepped in with major funding for capital outlay needs. 

If Moore’s bill passes, it will be placed in the primary ballot for 2020 for state voters to address the need. In the meantime, Macon County will have to continue to lean on county commissioners to provide funding to place temporary Band-aids on a growing problem. 

By Brittney Lofthouse

Leave a Reply