Statewide school construction bond gets initial House approval

March 14, 2019
The number of students in the Wake County Public School System is increasing by more than 3,000 every year, and that could require spending $1 billion by 2020 to keep up with the growth, according to staff studies.

House lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a proposal to put a $1.9 billion school construction bond on the 2020 ballot in an initial vote Wednesday.

After the 109-6 vote, a final House vote is set for Thursday before the measure heads to the Senate.

“There’s no reason we can’t have the newest, best schools for our kids,” House Speaker Tim Moore said in a rare floor speech to push the House Bill 241.

The $1.5 billion earmarked for public schools – the University of North Carolina system and state community colleges would each get $200 million from the bond, if approved by voters – would be allocated using a formula that balances school population, growth and income, with each county getting at least $10 million.

The Wake County Public School System would get the most money under the proposal, at $109.6 million, while Durham Public Schools would get the $10 million minimum and Cumberland County Schools would get $37 million.

“If you’re from rural North Carolina or get into rural North Carolina, you understand the needs our counties face,” said Moore, R-Cleveland. “Every kid in North Carolina deserves to have the best education, whether they live in a wealthy county or a poor county.”

Rep. Amos Quick, D-Guilford, protested that Guilford County would get only $12.6 million under the plan, despite having one of the largest school districts in the state and having three schools that can’t be used because they are still damaged from a tornado a year ago.

House Majority Leader John Bell headed off Quick’s complaints by promising to include Guilford County tornado damage in a disaster relief bill later this session.

Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus, tried to block the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill form getting any bond funds until the controversial “Silent Sam” Confederate monument is returned to campus and protected against protests, such as the one that toppled the statue last summer.

House leadership quickly shot down Pittman’s amendment as out of order, but that didn’t stop him from voicing opposition to the proposal.

“The money we’re putting at risk belongs to the citizens,” he said. “Pay as you go is the responsible way to go, especially when you’re dealing with other people’s money.”

Senate leaders likely will take a similar position on the bond proposal. The Senate has already passed its own school construction funding plan, preferring to tap an existing state construction fund in a pay-as-you-go model instead of having a bond referendum.

Moore said other school construction proposals “have merit” and that the bond proposal will likely be part of negotiations between the two chambers to reach a compromise of school construction.

Gov. Roy Cooper included a $3.9 billion bond in his budget proposal last week. More than half would go to public schools, with $500 million each to UNC and community college campuses and most of the rest for local infrastructure projects.

Wake County’s portion under the $1.9 billion bond would be about one-fifth of the size of the $548 million school bond local voters approved last fall to help build seven schools, renovate 11 others, buy land for future schools and upgrade security and classroom technology.

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