Politics & Government

NC lawmakers rejected a $2B bond for school building. Now they want to bring it back.

When teachers protested by the thousands in Raleigh this summer, one of their demands was for voters to have the chance to approve additional state spending for education funding, like building new schools.

Republican leaders in the N.C. General Assembly shot that idea down at the time. But they appear to have now changed their minds, with House Speaker Tim Moore announcing his plans to support a $1.9 billion education bond next year. If it passes the legislature in 2019, it would be on the ballot in 2020 for voters to decide on.

“Education is what matters most to families and businesses — to the private and public sectors alike — and North Carolina is poised to build on historic commitments to our schools with another long-term investment in capital construction for our rapidly growing student population,” Moore said in a press release.

Most of the money would go toward building new schools, Moore said, while about $600 million would go to the state’s university and community college systems.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper previously proposed a similar education bond and also supports this push, spokesman Ford Porter said Thursday.

“A school bond could relieve crowded, aging schools and ensure students across North Carolina get a quality education and opportunities to succeed,” Porter said in an email.

In North Carolina, the state provides most public school funding but typically does not provide any construction money. School construction is the responsibility of the individual local school districts. But school districts all around the state have been struggling on that front — in large counties because of rapid growth, and and in smaller counties because of strained budgets.

In Wake County, voters have passed local bonds worth hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years — including $550 million this past November — to fund more school construction.

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But overcrowding remains a problem. Last month the school board approved a plan that will reassign as many as 5,600 students to new schools next year, in large part to deal with overcrowding, The News & Observer reported.

Mark Johnson, the N.C. Superintendent of Schools, said in a press release Thursday that there’s no doubt school systems need help catching up with North Carolina’s fast population growth.

“As State Superintendent, I know first-hand the needs in our communities for school improvements,” Johnson said. “Together, we have launched innovative programs that use lottery funds to build new schools in our rural counties as well as public-private partnerships to build new schools.”

If this bond passes it would help counties of all sizes, although poor rural counties would especially benefit. Public schools in low-income counties would get extra funding and wouldn’t have to provide matching funds from their own budgets to receive the money, while wealthier counties would be expected to provide matching funds.

That $1.9 billion figure is the exact same number the Teachers March protesters asked for in May. But legislators promptly shot down that idea in June, according to past News & Observer reporting, before reversing course on Thursday.

The state’s largest teacher lobbying group, the N.C. Association of Educators, helped organize those protests. NCAE President Mark Jewell said while he’s still disappointed the bond wasn’t put on the ballot this year, like they had asked for, he hopes it does make it through the legislature in time for the 2020 election.

“NCAE and other public education advocates have been calling for a statewide school construction bond for some time,” Jewell said in an email. “We are glad House leaders have come to the realization that many of our schools are in dire need of repair and renovation. Unfortunately our public school students will have to wait two more years when there was bipartisan support to put this issue on the ballot this year.”

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Rob Thompson, the deputy director of the education nonprofit group NC Child, said his group is glad Moore is now using his influence to push for the bond.

“There’s the need out there,” Thompson said in an interview Thursday. “I think parents see that when they take their kids to school and see trailers, or the school’s falling apart.”

Moore’s announcement came the same day that Apple announced it would choose Texas for its new headquarters. North Carolina had competed to land that headquarters but missed out, just like with Amazon’s new headquarters. Moore’s announcement didn’t mention either company by name but did talk about how businesses like to be located in states with good schools and an educated populace.

“Remaining the best state for business requires that we continue to offer cutting-edge education opportunities for everyone in North Carolina,” Moore said.

The $1.9 billion figure Moore floated is also the same number from a failed attempt in 2017 to pass a $1.9 billion education bond then. However, it’s unclear if the bill Moore plans to push in 2019 will be exactly the same as that 2017 bill, since his announcement Thursday did not include a detailed draft bill.

But in the failed 2017 bill, Wake County would have received $170 million and Mecklenburg County $151 million. In the rest of the Triangle, Durham County would have received $20.3 million from that 2017 plan, Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools would’ve received a combined $12 million, and Chatham County $9.3 million.

None of those Triangle school systems would have been eligible for the extra money for low-wealth areas in the 2017 bill. Some of the low-wealth school systems that would’ve fared especially well in the 2017 bill were Johnston, Harnett, Cumberland and Robeson counties.

Will Doran reports on North Carolina politics, with a focus on state employees and agencies. In 2016 he started The News & Observer’s fact-checking partnership, PolitiFact NC, and before that he reported on local governments around the Triangle. Contact him at wdoran@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-2858.