LUMBERTON — State lawmakers want to know which counties face the most challenges in providing their students school facilities conducive to learning.
At least $1 million is being spent by the state to hire a company to study school construction needs in all 100 counties. The directive also requires that a determination be made of which local school districts have the greatest facility needs in relation to their capacity to raise money to meet those needs.
The legislature’s Program Evaluation Division is currently getting bids from engineering firms to conduct the study that lawmakers hope will help the state spend money more effectively. Findings are to be reported to the Joint Legislative Program Evaluation Oversight Committee, and the Joint Legislative Economic Development and Global Engagement Oversight Committee, on or before March 15.
“When this study is completed, I hope the General Assembly seriously considers the results and doesn’t just put the study in a desk somewhere,” said state Rep. Charles Graham, a Democrat from Robeson County. “Hopefully the results can be used to help those counties needing the most construction needs … I’d like to see the General Assembly eventually fund at least part of a county’s school construction needs.”
The state already pays most of the personnel costs for teachers and school employees. Counties are responsible for building and maintaining their own schools.
Graham was joined in his support of the study by Rep. Ken Goodman, a Democrat from Richmond County who represents part of Robeson as well, and state Sen. Jane Smith, a Democrat from Lumberton who represents Robeson and Columbus counties.
“I’m hoping some ways will be found to help all counties across the state with school construction, especially rural counties where the tax base does not support new school construction,” Smith said. “Maybe some good ideas for funding schools will come out of this study … This certainly may help us in Robeson and Columbus counties.”
Rep. Garland Pierce, a Democrat from Scotland County whose district includes part of Robeson County, said he supports the study, but feels that paying $1 million or more is not good use of public money.
“I’m amazed that they are spending that much money,” he said “… Counties can best assess their school construction needs. Why should we pay such a large amount to a company that is just going to go and collect from the school system information that is already known?”
Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Republican from Wake County and the House budget chairman, told television station WRAL that the study could lead to a long-term plan with more targeted assistance for counties that need to fund school construction projects.
“It varies greatly whether you’re talking about urban or rural or suburban or bedroom communities,” Dollar told WRAL “So, it’s very much a challenge to determine what those needs are.”
How to fund construction of new schools has been an issue in Robeson County for several months. A meeting is scheduled for Tuesday between the Public Schools of Robeson County Board of Education, N.C. Treasurer’s Office and Robeson County’s state legislative delegation to discuss school construction. The county commissioners has also been invited, but there are questions about their attendance.
The county had been considering a $1.4 billion plan to consolidate Robeson County schools, but legislation seen as integral to making that plan work failed to pass during the most recent legislative session. The 40-year lease purchase agreement, pitched to Robeson County officials by sfL+a Architects, called for closing 30 schools and paying for the construction of 14 new ones with the savings.
Senate Bill 554 as originally written would have allowed school systems to enter into lease agreements with private companies and put some state money toward those agreements. Following opposition from the state Treasurer’s Office, the bill was watered down to remove state money as a funding source.
The revised version of the bill seemed headed for approval after a unanimous vote in the Senate, but as the end of the legislative session neared, the bill died.
Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165.