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Local lawmakers say debt best avoided for school construction

SALISBURY — The need for funding school construction projections are points of agreement in the North Carolina Senate and House, but the funding source is not.

The Senate has worked through a bill that would use tax money to fix infrastructure problems and build new schools. Last week, the bill was passed in the chamber. But the House, with backing from Gov. Roy Cooper, is looking to add a $1.9 billion bond package for school construction to the 2020 ballot.

Rep. Harry Warren, R-76, said he’s not satisfied with the House plan and prefers the “pay-as-it-goes” bill from the Senate, calling it a “tremendous way to fund the schools.”

Rep. Larry Pittman, R-83, also prefers the Senate bill.

“I hope we can kill the bond idea in the House,” Pittman said. “I will certainly try. However, it may well be that the House and Senate will each pass their own bill, and we’ll have a debate between the two. It could get interesting.”

Sen. Carl Ford, R-33, continues to advocate for the Senate school construction bill, saying it would be from a non-interest bank account that is gaining money and could start providing funds to schools by the next school year.

“Everyone that needs it needed it yesterday,” Ford said.

Rep. Julia Howard, R-77, is reluctant to support the bill and pay for school construction at the state level. She thinks the priority should be on fixing the school lottery fund that would give schools funding from the county level.

“We wouldn’t need to be talking about the bond and the pay as it goes,” Howard said.

Pittman said like Howard, he would like to see the education lottery live up to its name and be reconfigured so the majority of revenue goes to the schools. North Carolina created a state education lottery in 2005 to help local governments pay education expenses, but that money has been used by the state to fill other budget holes. 

Building schools has been funded through the local districts, with state lottery funds supporting it recently. But, in Rowan, funding for maintenance and construction is a sore spot between commissioners and the school board, as the county is seldom able to fund Rowan-Salisbury Schools’ requests in their entirety. Just four years ago, commissioners and school board members came close to a lawsuit over capital improvement funding.

Proponents of the school bond say it will set aside funds specifically for school construction and can’t be used for other means if the legislators later change their mind. Cooper’s budget office said setting aside cash, as indicated in Building North Carolina’s Future, could impact needs, like teacher raises, pre-kindergarten and environmental protections.

“A successful school bond is a smarter way to do business because it locks down financing now and still leaves funding to get good teachers and principals in the classrooms,” Cooper said in a statement.

The bond would mean more debt to the state, which Pittman is against.

“I oppose all bonds because they incur debt, and we have enough debt already,” Pittman said.

The budget office said the additional debt with the bond would not send the state’s borrowing into overdrive.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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