By Justin Smith, The News Reporter
The speaker of the N.C. House of Representatives, joined by local legislator Rep. Brenden Jones (R-Columbus), told education leaders gathered at South Columbus High School Friday that schools in the county would receive as much as $12 million from a proposed statewide construction bond, which could also be used for repair and renovation projects.
Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) said he will file a bill for a $1.9 billion bond that voters would consider in a 2020 ballot referendum. The proposal would provide $1.3 billion for K-12 capital construction needs, $300 million to the state’s public universities and another $300 million for facility needs in North Carolina’s community colleges.
Jones said the proposed bond is especially important because Columbus County voters in November rejected a proposed quarter-cent sales tax referendum that would have benefited both local school systems and Southeastern Community College.
“Thank goodness the speaker has taken the bull by the horn and is making sure that Tier-1 schools like those in Columbus County get the help that they need,” Jones said. “This is huge. This is a big deal for us.”
Jonathan Williams, interim superintendent of Columbus County Schools, said the funding is sorely needed in his system, in which some facilities are more than a century old. Needs also exist at newer facilities, including South Columbus High School, where an estimate to replace the roof exceeded $600,000.
“It is a game changer,” Williams said of the proposed bond. “We see it in the rural counties as an equalizer to some of the advantages that you have in more urban areas.”
In addition to Williams, the event was attended by Whiteville City School Board members Coleman Barbour, Kandle Rogers and Anna Richardson, as well as Columbus County Commissioner Jerome McMillian and Sheriff Jody Greene.
Bond proceeds for K-12 school systems should be weighted by counties’ low-wealth status, population, average school enrollment and enrollment growth, according to a press release from Moore’s office. Additionally, grants to K-12 schools would prioritize counties that have limited ability to generate tax revenue, carry high debt-to-tax ratios and have critical school construction needs. Grants for smaller counties with economic challenges wouldn’t require a local match, while larger school systems should provide matching funds.
Moore stressed that the bond would not result in higher taxes given the state’s strong financial position and credit rating. He said the bill should pass the House overwhelmingly.
“I can speak for the House, not for the Senate,” Moore said. “They get a little upset when I do that. But I feel confident that it will [pass] there.”
Moore said it would likely be two years before the money would reach the school districts and the community college because he plans for the referendum to appear on the 2020 primary ballot. He said it’s important for the measure to be considered during an even-year election when voter turnout is generally higher so as many people can weigh in as possible.
New preK-8 schools in Cerro Gordo and Tabor City and a major overhaul of the Whiteville High School campus are already planned and will be funded by county government contributions, state needs-based grants and debt financing by both school systems.