There’s reason to believe that legislation that was required for state money to be used for school construction would have gotten through the General Assembly last year and signed into law except that it got entangled with the need for new schools in Robeson County.
When it did the state Treasurer’s Office mobilized and ultimately killed Senate Bill 554. Janet Cowell, the treasurer who did not seek re-election, was convinced that this county couldn’t do the math well enough to take on $1.4 billion of debt over 40 years, and she used her foot soldiers to keep the bill from being heard in the House after it passed the Senate unanimously.
But similar legislation has been resurrected, and last week House Bill 600 was approved in that chamber by a 116-2 vote. Two of its primary sponsors, Reps. Brenden Jones and Ken Goodman, represent parts of Robeson County.
The bill is now in the Senate, and odds are it or a similar version will become law.
The bill provides flexibility for local school systems to use state money for school construction as long as that money has not been earmarked for the classroom.
The reason the legislation appears to be on a fast track is simple: The reality is local school systems, not just Robeson County, cannot afford to build new schools, and that is the case in pretty much all of this state’s counties, even the ones that are wealthy. Consider that new schools cost $30 million to $50 million to build, and you begin to understand the scope of the problem.
The problem in Robeson County is worse because of our sheer size, 951 square miles, and the number of schools, 42, that endure because of the lack of political courage in a tri-racial county to close schools. That is why we championed last year’s Big Bang plan, which was to shutter 30 schools and build 14, including a badly needed technical school.
The architect of the plan, Robbie Ferris, who operates a firm in Raleigh, said that could be done while saving the county money through savings associated with maintenance, fewer staff and energy. We know that for some that seemed too good to be true. And maybe it was, but it was then — and now — the only affordable way to tackle a local problem of falling down and aging schools.
The favored method of building schools, through the sale of bonds, doesn’t work locally because, as county officials told us, raising $75 million that would pay for two, maybe three schools, would come with a tax increase of as much as 20 cents. And the problem would have been barely dented.
State money is going to have to be made available for local school systems across North Carolina to meet the challenge of getting students out of decades-old schools and into shiny ones that better accommodate learning. That is why House Bill 600 will eventually become law.
When that happens, it will be up to locally elected officials, both on school boards and county commissions, to figure out how those dollars can be best used to give their children better halls in which to matriculate. Our fear now, as it was last year, is that locally we don’t have the kind of leadership that will be required, especially on a school board that doesn’t even seem to acknowledge that new schools are needed.
House Bill 600 provides a way for local school systems, even impoverished ones, to take on the challenge of building new schools. We expect others to do what this county could not last year, and that is to lead. Perhaps we can follow.