The Wilkes County schools stand to gain an estimated $9 to $10 million for facility needs if a proposed $1.9 billion statewide school bond is put on the ballot and passes.
That was part of the message shared in a public forum held Friday morning by State House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) at Mount Pleasant Elementary School in western Wilkes.
It was the third in a continuing series of similar forums hosted by Moore for public input since he announced plans for seeking the bond referendum in December.
Legislation putting the bond vote on the March 2020 ballot will be filed this week, he said, adding that the state treasurer said $1.9 billion is the state’s maximum debt capacity.
Moore said $1.5 billion of the $1.9 billion would go for K-12 public schools and $200 million apiece to community colleges and state universities.
He said local school boards and local governments would decide how the money is spent. It would be awarded to school districts in lump sum amounts, with 10 years to be spend.
Joseph Kyzer, Moore’s communications director, said, “We’re confident this can be done without a tax increase.”
Moore said factors determining the amount of bond funding awarded to each school district would include average school enrollment, enrollment growth, county low-wealth status and county economic tier.
Wilkes is a “low wealth” county, which means the Wilkes school system receives annual supplemental funding from the state. Counties are designated low wealth if their ability to generate local revenue for public schools is below the state average. This is based on county tax base, county tax rate, square mileage and per capita income.
Shelby Armentrout, policy adviser on Moore’s staff, said a “small (funding) match” would be required from Tier 2 counties, none from Tier 1 and more from Tier 3.” She didn’t have the actual matching percentages. Wilkes is a Tier 2 county.
The 40 most economically distressed counties are Tier 1, the next 40 most distressed are Tier 2 and the least 20 distressed are Tier 3. “Distress” is based on average unemployment rate, median household income, percentage growth in population and adjusted property tax base per capita.
A proposal in the Senate calls for providing just over $2 billion for public schools over the next nine years and funding it with existing revenue streams instead of borrowing money in the form of school bonds. Moore said the problem with the Senate plan is that the current legislature can’t control whether legislators carry out the proposed funding in future years.
Rep. Jeffrey Elmore (R-Wilkes), who co-chairs the House Education K-12 and Education Appropriations committees, said coming to Mount Pleasant Elementary would help Moore see what the bonds could do for rural schools.
Although the public often thinks of constructing new buildings when school bonds are mentioned, said Elmore, safety measures and renovations that make existing facilities safer are big concerns for Wilkes and many other school districts.
He said Mount Pleasant is an example of school buildings not needing replacement due to their good condition but needing renovations to address safety since they were constructed before some safety issues existed.
Rudy Holbrook, chairman of the Wilkes school board, said safety improvements are the main facility need in the Wilkes schools. Holbrook cited Mount Pleasant as an example because so many of its doors open directly to the outdoors. He mentioned Roaring River Elementary as another school with facility safety needs.
“We’ve done all we can to make them (the schools) safer with finances we have. We just need some help,” said Holbrook.
Sharron Huffman, Wilkes school board member, said one building at Mount Pleasant is nearly 70 years old and should be replaced. Huffman added that she regretted disagreeing with Elmore because they’re friends and have a good working relationship.
She said people entering buildings at Mount Pleasant may see things that are beyond fixing. “You can get to a point where you fix and repair and fix and repair and you are throwing good money away” because it can’t be repaired. “I think there are some areas here (at Mount Pleasant) and there may be areas in other parts of the county where it’s not a matter of fixing” because it’s not feasible.
Huffman mentioned a study done on closing in a lower grade building at Mount Pleasant to make it safer and asked Bergie Speaks, director of maintenance for the Wilkes schools, for the best word to describe what the study determined. Speaks said it found that this would be a “difficult” undertaking.
She emphasized doing what is best for kids, including replacing buildings at Mount Pleasant and other Wilkes schools that can’t be made safer.
Kristine Kennington, in her second year as Mount Pleasant principal, said Speaks and his men do all they can weekly in response to repair requests at the school, but some of the same things have been repaired four or five times since she’s been principal there.
An example is replacing ceiling tiles in the media center due to a leaky roof. Each time there is long period of rain, she said, garbage cans are put out in the media room to catch water from leaks.
Kennington said a $50,000 Lowe’s Hometown Grant funded a complete makeover of the school media center, where the forum was held Friday. The media center, school office and classrooms are in a building constructed in 1980.
A classroom building at the school was constructed in 1950, but has new drywall. The cafeteria building was constructed in 1963. Another classroom building was constructed in 1976.
Kennington said she spends much of her day watching monitors connected to numerous exterior security cameras as groups of students are escorted by teachers from one building to another “because I’m very aware that the safety and well-being of the 221 children (at the school) is my first concern.”
School Superintendent Mark Byrd said, “One of the biggest challenges facing all of us right now is (public sector) infrastructure and facility needs statewide…. An investment in our public schools is an investment in the future of this state. It’s the most important place for money to be spent.”
The Wilkes County Schools five-year facility needs plan approved in 2011 included the addition of seven classrooms and enclosing a current covered walkway at Mount Pleasant at an estimated cost of $1.4 million. School boards are required to update their facility needs plans every five years.
A new roof at Mount Pleasant was among projects included in a capital improvement plan approved by the Wilkes Board of Education in 2015.
Roof replacement projects are listed at the majority of the Wilkes County schools. Heating and air conditioning and other electrical work is also included at several schools. No new buildings are in the plan.
Alarm systems and other security measures are listed and Speaks said these and additional safety-related projects have been given precedence over other work in recent years.
The Wilkes County commissioners have provided additional funding in recent years for school facility needs.
Keith Elmore, chairman of the county commissioners, said that when he was a second-grader at Roaring River Elementary, students took turns feeding coal to a pot-bellied stove in the middle of the classroom. He said the Wilkes schools have come a long way since then. “I’m here to support whatever the schools need,” Elmore added. “I’m not totally sure what they need, but I am here to support the schools.”
County Commissioner Brian Minton said he looked forward to working with others to address school needs and then agreed with Holbrook about the importance of school safety.
Moore said the legislature historically has looked at holding a school bond referendum about once every 10 years. The last one, which passed, was in 1996.
Moore said he is a big supporter of public education. He has two sons, one a junior in the early college high school in Cleveland County and the other a graduate of Kings Mountain High School who now is a freshman at Appalachian State University.
Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, proposed a statewide school bond referendum in his budget requests to the General Assembly for the 2018 short session. High-ranking Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate filed legislation in 2017 seeking a $1.9 billion school bond on the November 2018 ballot, but these didn’t pass.
Demands of teachers who marched in Raleigh in May included holding a $1.9 billion statewide school construction bond referendum.