Politics & Government

NC lawmakers want voters to decide on some things, but not funding for school buildings

Thousands of educators march in Raleigh and demand respect

On Wednesday May 16, 2018, the opening day of the legislative session, educators and their supporters from across the state traveled to Raleigh to demand more funding for public education.
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On Wednesday May 16, 2018, the opening day of the legislative session, educators and their supporters from across the state traveled to Raleigh to demand more funding for public education.

North Carolina residents are likely to vote this fall on amendments to change the state constitution, but they won't get a chance to decide on funding for school construction.

Calls for a $1.9 billion statewide school construction bond referendum were among the demands made by the 19,000 teachers who marched in Raleigh in May. Advocates for the school bond say the state needs to step up because aging schools are crumbling around North Carolina and some communities are too poor to pay for their school needs.

But instead of a school bond, legislators are debating what constitutional amendments to put on the fall ballot before they leave Raleigh next week. Proposed amendments cover such topics as requiring voters to show ID, capping the state's income tax rate, ensuring crime victims' rights and guaranteeing the right to hunt and fish.

“The voters in the state really deserve to decide if addressing the school building needs of our children are worth doing," said Matt Ellinwood, director of the Education and Law Project at the N.C. Justice Center. "If these amendments are being put to a vote, this should as well."

The Justice Center is part of a coalition of education, political and business groups who have been lobbying state lawmakers to put a school construction bond referendum on the ballot. But the proposal hasn't gained traction among the Republican leadership in the General Assembly.

"North Carolina law states that local governments are responsible for school construction expenses," said Bill D'Elia, a spokesman for Senate leader Phil Berger. "However, we understand there are counties in North Carolina that are struggling financially, which is why the budget Republican lawmakers recently passed sets aside $241 million next year, and additional recurring dollars in future years, to build or upgrade school facilities, with much of that funding going to economically struggling, rural counties.

"Since assuming leadership of the General Assembly in 2011, Republicans’ philosophy has been to avoid saddling taxpayers with additional debt when priorities can be paid for through existing revenues and without borrowing money."

The decision not to hold a statewide school bond means Triangle schools won't get a chance to receive more than $260 million. There will still be a $548 million school construction bond referendum on the ballot in Wake County to support local needs.

Ellinwood says what the state is providing for school construction is a drop in the bucket compared to the actual needs.

School districts identified $8 billion in construction needs when advocacy groups went before state legislators last year to ask for the $1.9 billion school bond. The last statewide school construction bond referendum was in 1996.

The proposal initially met with broad support. Legislation calling for a November 2018 school bond referendum had both Republican and Democratic sponsors when it was filed in spring 2017.

Under the legislation, Wake County would get $169.9 million since it's the largest school district in the state. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, as the second largest district, would get $151.5 million.

Johnston County would get $68.3 million and Durham would get $20.3 million.

"We need this school bond not only because there are many districts that need additional schools, but poor districts have great renovation needs to ensure that the school house is both safe and adaptable to 21st Century learning concepts, primarily the use of technology," said Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican and one of the primary sponsors of the school bond legislation.

Horn said the problem is that "there’s always a group of people who run away from any bonds or indebtedness."

Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, questioned why legislators didn't want to borrow so much money for schools but gave permission earlier this month to borrow $3 billion to fix roads and bridges without asking for voter approval. He says both are needed.

"It’s incredibly disappointing when our schools have about $8 billion in school construction and renovation needs that the General Assembly won’t move on a common-sense state bond at a time when interest rates are low," he said.

Several of the ballot questions under consideration are expected to help draw conservative voters to the polls in November, when Republicans anticipate losing seats in the legislature.

"Constitutional amendments are often used to drive turnout for a particular party’s base, so often you see amendments or ballot issues added that the party believes will help them politically," Poston said.

Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators, which organized May's teacher protest, said it's especially unfortunate that the school bond won't be on the ballot considering how many school districts say they don't have enough classrooms to deal with the legislature's mandate to reduce K-3 class sizes.

"We know our school buildings are crumbling across the state," Jewell said. "In our low-wealth districts, we have students being educated in trailers. We have a class-size mandate that we don’t have space for."

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui
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