North Carolina’s House called Thursday for a state referendum on a $1.9 billion school construction bond issue that earmarks $61.8 million for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
The measure follows a 2016 legislative mandate that public schools reduce class sizes in kindergarten through third grade to improve academic achievement. But a CMS official says the money would only partly answer the district’s needs.
“We’re grateful for every dollar, but $61 million with the population of our county gets spread pretty thin pretty quickly,” said Charles Jeter, a former House member who is now the district’s government relations coordinator and policy administrator.
It’s unclear whether the state Senate will support the House bill or stick with an alternative, passed in February, that sponsors say would provide $2 billion for school construction over nine years without a bond issue.
CMS has not taken a position on the House bill nor determined how it would use the money, Jeter said. It’s more likely, he said, that the district would renovate buildings or add classrooms rather than build new schools, because it can cost $30 million for a single elementary school.
The class-size mandate will require 200 to 225 new CMS classrooms at an estimated cost of $150 million if mobile classrooms, which the House bill prohibits, are not used, Jeter said. Districts have until the 2021-22 school year to comply. The legislature approved extra money last year to help districts hire teachers to meet the mandate but so far hasn’t come up with money for more physical space.
The House bill approved Thursday provides $1.5 billion to public schools and $200 million each to the University of North Carolina system and community colleges.
The measure is designed to help counties with the greatest needs by giving more weight to poorer districts and guaranteeing at least $10 million to each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. It also factors in the recent growth of districts including CMS.
The result is that largely rural Johnston County, with 36,000 students, gets $77 million in funding while CMS, with four times more students, gets about $62 million.
House Speaker Tim Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, says economic conditions make this a ripe time to sell bonds.
“Interest rates are low, and they’re only going up,” Moore said in a statement Wednesday. “Construction costs are only going up. We have a unanimous AAA credit rating. Now is the time to do this, and at the end of the day it will be up to the voters to decide.”
Republican senators in January filed a bill calling for $2 billion in school construction and maintenance over nine years. Sponsors say the Senate’s approach would be cheaper than bonds because it has no interest payments, and would make money available faster than issuing bonds.
Under the Senate bill, construction costs would be paid by the state’s State Capital and Infrastructure Fund, which finances interest payments on existing bonds and capital improvements for state agencies and the UNC system. The Senate bill allocates more money to the fund from tax revenue and dedicates one-third of its available money to public school capital projects.
“Our position is that we don’t need to go into debt to pay for new schools and maintenance, so we shouldn’t,” said Pat Ryan, a spokesman for Senate Leader Phil Berger. Ryan said it’s expected the Senate and House will continue negotiating their differences, possibly while hammering out the state budget.
The measure, which does not specify how much money it would make available to CMS, passed the Senate in February and is now before a House committee.
Gov. Roy Cooper’s proposed budget calls for a $3.9 billion bond referendum, with $2 billion going to build and renovate K-12 schools.