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Perspective | The time to build is now: The need for a school construction bond

24 — a number sported by Willie Mays, Kobe Bryant, and Jeff Gordon. It is also the number of years since the state of North Carolina last issued a significant infusion of funding for school construction. It was a $1.8 billion school bond issue in 1996, which in today’s dollars would be worth more than $2.9 billion.

From the late 1940s through the turn of the century, North Carolina voters approved state obligation bonds on average every 10 years to help counties with school construction projects. It has now been more than two decades since a statewide bond has been approved. Meanwhile, the backlog of essential K-12 capital projects continues to grow.

$8.1 billion — that is another important number. It represents the documented five-year need for K-12 school construction in the last survey of North Carolina’s school boards and county commissioners. We know the current figure is much higher since several school boards/counties did not submit their numbers, the state recently mandated that class size be reduced in grades K-3 which creates the need for additional classrooms, and several more targeted studies, including one by the legislature, showed that many school districts actually under-reported their capital needs.

Interior of a school. Courtesy of J. Wendell Hall

The question often arises: Why hasn’t the “education lottery” solved this problem? While a portion of the proceeds have been used for school construction, it also pays for other education needs including expanding pre-kindergarten opportunities, college scholarships, and K-12 instructional support personnel (social workers, counselors, etc.). Actually, only about 15% of the net proceeds goes to school construction in all 100 counties — this figure used to be 40%. 

For the last couple of years, there has been a robust discussion about how the General Assembly and governor can assist in dealing with the fast-growing statewide backlog. It is clearly time for state leaders to step up, as they have in the past, with a meaningful solution that creates much-needed jobs in every county without raising taxes. Otherwise, your county commissioners will be faced with the choice of continuing to send students to schools that are overcrowded and old or raising local property taxes to fund these much-needed projects. The answer is quite simple — allow the voters of this great state to decide for themselves if they are willing to support a significant statewide bond for school construction. 

The K-12 school construction proposal put forth by House Speaker Tim Moore this spring that was recently passed by the House and sent to the Senate is $1.05 billion. This is almost one-third less than what he proposed just one year ago. While I am appreciative of this interest in school construction, it seems to be inadequate given the need and costs.

So, you might be wondering what I would consider to be a significant amount.  To put this in perspective, the average cost of an elementary school in 1996 vs. the average cost in recent years is $7.5 million and $24 million, respectively.  The cost has more than tripled in that time frame. The $1.8 billion bond issue of 1996 would have paid for 239 elementary schools. This year’s proposed bond buys roughly 43 elementary schools statewide. 

Water stain turned to mold inside a school. Courtesy of J. Wendell Hall

Remember, North Carolina has 100 counties and 115 school districts — do the math. Forget that, I’ll do the math for you. That comes to about one-third of an elementary school for each school district. However, the number of new schools across the state would be considerably fewer if some districts required middle schools or high schools instead of just elementary schools.

With interest rates at some of the lowest levels of our lifetime, let’s not waste this amazing opportunity to invest in North Carolina’s future.

I do not want to be here a year from now listing off famous athletes who wore number 25.

J. Wendell Hall

J. Wendell Hall is a member of the N.C. State Board of Education, former president of the NC Association of School Administrators, former president of the NC School Boards Association, and a member of the Hertford County Board of Education.