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Time to address neglected public schools for the long term

The good news is that there’s broad agreement in Raleigh that the needs of North Carolina’s public schools have been neglected for too long, and it’s time to start addressing those needs. The bad news is there’s a political battle ahead regarding just how to achieve that goal.

House Speaker Tim Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, has pitched a $1.9 billion bond, tentatively to be presented to voters for their approval next year. It would provide local schools with about $1.3 billion and another $200 million each for the University of North Carolina system and state community colleges.

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, has offered his own plan that he says would give public schools $2 billion over nine years, with no borrowing needed. The dollars, Berger says, would come from the State Capital and Infrastructure Fund, which was created to provide around 4 percent of the state’s general revenue fund to UNC system and state government projects. The proposal to the state Senate would bump that to 4.5 percent and provide funds for community colleges and local schools.

The third player on the stage is Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who’d like to put a bond of nearly $4 billion on the ballot. Cooper says K-12 schools in the state have a backlog of $8 billion in renovation and construction needs. More than half of the money from Cooper’s proposal would go to public schools, around $500 million each goes to community colleges and the UNC system, while the remainder would focus on local infrastructure projects.

The Senate measure is attractive in that with pay-as-you-go, there’s no interest to be paid on bonds. It’s unattractive in that construction money would be distributed by the Department of Public Instruction and that there’s no guarantee the dollars would flow from year to year. A future legislature could change the law as it pleases, making education infrastructure needs susceptible to other needs – responding to a hurricane, for example.

The House bill and Cooper’s push are unattractive in that debt would have to be financed. Those plans have a huge upside in that they would provide predictable revenue streams and allow local education leaders to reliably plan for the future.

Planning for that future has been on the sidelines for too long. Cooper’s office points out that it’s been 23 years since a construction bond passed in North Carolina, and that half of the current K-12 school buildings in the state are at least 50 years old.

It’s a state of affairs that needs addressing, and needs addressing with a long-term plan. Everyone in Raleigh says they’re ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

Politicians love to say they love education. They can prove it by making sure the coming debate goes beyond words and yields dollars and cents.

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