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Falling short on public school facility needs

Every five years, under state law, local public school districts give the State Board of Education an assessment of their needs for new buildings, additions, renovations, furnishings, and land. The most recent survey adds up to $8.06 billion in needed upgrades to the physical environments for teaching and learning across the state.

After putting off responding last year, the Republican-majority General Assembly has agreed that the state should respond to local facility needs. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper also agrees. So is North Carolina on the verge of a substantial (and bipartisan) initiative to meet those needs? Well, not so much.

House Republicans voted to ask state voters to approve a $1.9 billion bond proposal. That plan would provide $1.5 billion for public schools and $400 million to universities and community colleges.

Instead of supporting a bond issue, Senate Republicans voted to increase the portion of general revenues directed to the capital infrastructure fund. One-third of the funds would go to public schools, one-third to higher education and one-third to other projects. It’s a pay-as-you-go method that avoids borrowing and interest payments.

In the negotiated reconciling of House and Senate budgets, pay-as-you-go prevailed. Then the governor issued his veto, citing the school construction provision as a key point of contention.

Earlier Cooper had proposed a $3.9 billion bond package — $2 billion for K-12 schools, $500 million for higher education, and $900 million for other infrastructure. Now, in his negotiation offer to Republican leaders, Cooper proposes a combination of a bond initiative and additional money for education in the infrastructure fund, both scaled back from the original plans.

Post-veto negotiations remain contentious and in doubt on an array of issues. Nothing is final until everything is final. But in responding to the assessment of school facility needs, state government appears certain to fall far short of $8 billion.

Still, important decisions loom over how to finance state assistance to modernize local classrooms and associated educational facilities. As context, recall that the lottery legislation of 2005 dedicated 40% of proceeds to public school facilities — but over subsequent years, lawmakers detached lottery revenue from its original purposes. What’s more, while reducing corporate taxes in recent years, the legislature also removed the requirement that a portion of corporate-tax revenue go into the public school construction fund.

Meanwhile, as several local education officials noted in their response to the facility needs assessment, school districts foresee having to provide additional classroom space to reduce class size and to expand pre-K, both worthy initiatives. Unfunded state mandates would especially burden school districts in economically distressed communities.

Even though it avoids interest payments, the pay-as-you-go method amounts to a go-slow, don’t-do-much approach. Beyond the first installment, much would depend on revenue availability and legislative action year by year. A bond issue would push out more projects with more certainty — and with the state’s vaunted triple-A bond rating holding down interest.

In addition to obvious improvements to the learning and teaching environments, a robust school construction initiative would have important ancillary benefits. Public schools represent community-rooted facilities that enhance neighborhoods and towns. In addition, school construction and renovation would provide jobs, perhaps helping to offset any economic slowdown in the near future. And the state could use its leverage to open up job opportunities for apprentices in the construction trades and disconnected youths.

As the budget struggle proceeds, the word “compromise’’ readily arises to characterize negotiated agreements. It’s not a bad word, but it doesn’t necessarily denote an optimum or even satisfactory settlement. In the case of school facilities, any “compromise’’ is almost certain to fall well short of total needs. And modernizing schools will remain on the state’s agenda for 2020 and beyond.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.