Evergreen Elementary School in Columbus County is clean, tidy, and nearly 100 years old. Light comes in through parts of the roof in the gym where the dark brown floor boards have buckled up in little swollen hills two inches tall. Classrooms inside the main building are small based on today's standards, the auditorium is not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and technology is an afterthought.
“Its hard, it's really hard, because everything's old,” said Harvey LeSane, janitor at Evergreen Elementary. “There's a lot of bricks and stuff just worn out, sidewalks cracked, fences just torn from all the long years and wear and tear.”
North Carolina schools, including places like Evergreen Elementary, are in need of roughly $8 billion worth of renovation and construction, according to the latest state facilities survey. And there does seems to be bipartisan agreement in the General Assembly that the state should contribute to some of those repairs. House Speaker Tim Moore's version of that push, HB 241, would prioritize low-wealth counties in the allocation of funds.
“One of the things that poses a problem for us is economics,” said Jonathan Williams, interim superintendent for Columbus County Schools. “We are one of the poorer districts in the state. We don't let that stop us of course, but that is [one] of the obstacles.”
In North Carolina, individual school districts pay for the upkeep, maintenance and construction of the school buildings. That money comes from property taxes or whatever grants the county can pull down from the state and federal governments.
In a county like Columbus, with lower incomes and a shrinking population, that’s a dwindling pool of funds.
“It's not fair,” said Williams. “[Our students] deserve anything on par with other children in the state of North Carolina. And there are many [counties] in our situation.”
After years of patching up Evergreen Elementary, the county is having to figure out an alternative: consolidating schools and – if the county can find the money – maybe building a new school.
“If you started talking about remodeling a building like [Evergreen], when you were finished you'd still have – see the cracking going up there?” Columbus County Interim Superintendent Jonathan Williams points to the corner of the Evergreen Elementary School gym. “You'd still have an old building with a fresh coat of paint, but the foundation [isn't there].”
Williams says you can find scenes like this all over the county.
“We are growing at a greater rate now than in any time anyone can think of in recent history,” said House Speaker Tim Moore. “Our unemployment rate is at record low levels. Wages are the highest they've been in many, many years. Taxes are the lowest they've been in decades … But it isn't necessarily always reaching to other areas of this state.”
Moore's bill would ask voters to approve a $1.9 billion bond in November 2020. Of that, $1.5 billion would go to districts for school repairs. The remaining funds would go for similar repairs and construction costs at state universities and community colleges.
Forty percent of the capital funds for public school is specifically targeted towards school districts in low-wealth counties. Additionally, Moore's plan would guarantees that counties like Columbus receive a minimum of $10 million for school construction.
“I represent a rural area,” said Moore, “and I've seen particularly our rural areas that have had some of the greatest challenges when it comes to affording school construction. And as I've traveled the state I've seen this from literally from Manteo to Murphy. And I think this is an opportunity to invest some funds back into those local communities.”
Moore also proposes that wealthier counties with booming populations like Mecklenburg and Wake match a certain percentage of the state dollars with local funds. These counties have their own set of challenges – they can't build schools fast enough.
Moore's bill easily passed the House with bipartisan support. However, there is a competing bill in the both Senate (SB 5) and in the House (HB 381). Those bills would fund the school repairs and capital projects directly with general revenue funds, instead of a bond. Bonds puts the state in debt and ultimately have to be approved by voters in a general election, but bonds also guarantee the money for a specific purpose over the duration of the bond. The competing bills would require the General Assembly to keep the money available each year, a pay-as-you-go approach.
Governor Roy Cooper has proposed $2 billion for school construction and maintenance as part of a larger General Obligation Bond in his recommended budget.
“We're early enough in the session where we can have the discussion, we can float the ideas around and in the end come up with something that's going to result in school construction,” he said, as long as it gets to the counties that need the money.
Jonathan Williams, the Columbus County interim superintendent, drove to Old Dock Elementary School in the southeastern part of the county to see how things were going. The school is an example of the kind of building they’d like to construct over the next few years. Old Dock once had floors so thin there were parts that were falling through. After a fire gutted the main building in 2015, insurance money paid for the new construction.
“This has really done wonders for our community and for our kids here, they love love love coming to school,” said Ronna Gore, principal at Old Dock. “Not that they didn't before, but they absolutely love coming now ... it's pretty and it's new, it's vibrant, it's colorful.”
And, it's changed how they're able to teach. The school now has the capacity for more than one computer lab and digital screens that are used as interactive blackboards.
“I mean if we are competing to be global citizens and competitive students and stuff we really really have to have these classrooms like this,” said Gore.
“I feel like our students deserve the best that we can give them,” said Williams. “We can't give them the Taj Mahal but we certainly deserve better. This bond, the $10 million for Columbus County, would go a long way.”