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Needs-based grants bring building funds for nine districts

At a ceremony Monday, the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) recognized the nine districts receiving collectively more than $300 million in funds for school construction, improvement, and repair.

Lisa Jackson, superintendent of Pamlico County Schools, said the money is ultimately about the students.

“For Pamlico County, it’s about finally getting our middle school students out of a flood plain,” she said at the ceremony. “These students have been seeing devastation twice in recent years thanks to Hurricane Irene and Florence.”

The money, awarded from the Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund, is in addition to more than $100 million going to 18 school districts awarded grants last year. Those 18 districts had received most of their original requests, but the additional funds are the remainder of those requests, according to DPI.

The fund is one of three building-focused programs supported by lottery money and given to school districts in the state.

At the ceremony, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt explained to the audience how the recipients were selected, revealing the depth of the school construction needs faced by districts.

“There was something about all of your applications that really struck a chord with the team and me,” she said. “So it could have been that you have earthquake damage. Or it could be that your school sits on a flood plain or it could be that you have not had a new school since 1937. Or it could be that if you raised your local sales tax a penny it would only generate about $43,000.”

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt and Deputy State Superintendent Rob Taylor at the ceremony for needs-based grant recipients. Alex Granados/EducationNC

School construction and repair is generally the responsibility of local school districts. A 2020-21 facility survey by DPI showed that school districts anticipated more than $12.8 billion in school construction needs over the next five years.

From 2020-21 DPI school facility needs survey.

Back in 2019, there was a push to find money to help fund more school construction needs in North Carolina. The big division was between the House and the Senate, with the House favoring a school construction bond and the Senate looking for a pay-as-you go approach. 

The final budget compromise would have provided about $4.4 billion over 10 years for K-12 school construction and repair via the pay-as-you go approach, but Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed it, in part because he favored the bond proposal. 

And then in 2020, COVID-19 and economic uncertainty made the prospect of finding the money for school construction even more unlikely.

The long session in 2021 was focused more on whether there would even be a budget, and school construction needs largely took a back seat.

Ultimately, for the needs-based capital fund, lawmakers increased funding by a little more than $70 million for 2021-22 and a little more than $78 million for 2022-23. That brought the total funding available for grants to a little more than $375 million in the first year and $153.3 million in the second year. That includes money from the Public School Capital Fund, which is funded by the state’s education lottery.

In the long session, lawmakers also created the Public School Building Repair and Renovation Fund and put $30 million in for the first year and $50 million in for the second year. This money was to provide each county $300,000 in the first year of the biennium and $500,000 in the second year.

The short session budget in 2022, which revised funds for 2022-23, included additional money for the needs-based capital fund, bringing the amount of money available for grants to a little more than $431 million.

From short session budget.

Rep. Bobby Hanig, R-Currituck, the House Deputy Majority Whip, attended the ceremony at DPI and said that the school construction funding stems from lawmakers listening to constituents.

“Our job in the General Assembly is to listen. Is to listen to our community partners. Listen to our citizens, and listen to the people that can make a difference,” he said. “And that’s the superintendents. That’s the teachers and the principals. And I think today we’ve answered that call.”

He said that helping districts with their school construction needs isn’t just good for education, but also the economy.

“One of the main things that businesses look at when they’re looking to move to North Carolina is … what the school is like, what’s the infrastructure like … is this a stable environment for us to move to?” he said. “It’s very important that we understand that. We’re already a leader in the business industry, in the business world; and continuing this program will help us continue to be that leader.”

But for Dannie Williams, superintendent of Weldon City Schools, these funds are about smaller, everyday concerns.

“The need is there. We have an old high school that in the summer, half of it does not get cooled, and in the winter half of it does not get warm,” he said. “We have a whole lot of concerns with flooding. And so therefore to place these children in a new facility, it just brings the newness in their environment to want to learn and want to be a part of, to want to be in school.”

According to the press release from DPI, the department received 164 grant applications from 72 districts. In total, the requests amounted to $2.4 billion.

The needs-based grants have awarded almost $1.2 billion over the last six years. Under the fund, districts can get $30 million for an elementary school project, $40 million for a middle school, and $50 million for a high school, according to the press release.

Here are the districts that received the grants, how much money they received, and what they’re using the money for:

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.