RALEIGH — State lawmakers are spending $1 million to hire a firm to study school construction needs in Scotland and the 99 other North Carolina counties to obtain a clearer picture of which counties face the greatest challenges.
As students across the state headed back to school this week, they will return to schools that range from brand new to decrepit.
Scotland County educators are currently working with county leaders on the second phase of a school consolidation effort that is expected to cost a total of $41 million.
While the state pays most of the personnel costs for teachers and school employees, counties are responsible for building and maintaining schools. Scotland’s school consolidation plan is based on a capacity study performed in 2014 that showed that the county’s middle schools and several elementary schools were underpopulated. But some county leaders have concerns with how the consolidation project will be paid for.
Sen. Tom McInnis, whose district includes Scotland, hinted it may be time for the state to help level the playing field.
According to McInnis, Scotland suffers from having one of the state’s highest poverty rates and often the highest jobless rate. The county also has property tax rate of $1.02 per $100 valuation – also one of the state’s highest.
“They can’t charge any more taxes. They’re past their limit for taxes,” said McInnis, a Republican from Rockingham. “Yet, they have schools that are built in the ’40s and ’50s and ’60s that need replacing.
“They have needs for a new school, but how to pay for it is certainly not going to be raising taxes.”
Previous studies on the issue have recommended extra state funding for low-wealth counties, but McInnis said that amounts to more than 70 counties.
“We need to get it down to what real need is, and that’s the bottom 20 or 30 or 40 that are historically rural, with high tax rates, with no opportunity for growth, with decreasing population,” he said.
House Budget Chairman Nelson Dollar said the study will examine all of those factors and come up with a long-term plan that could include more targeted assistance.
“It varies greatly whether you’re talking about urban or rural or suburban or bedroom communities,” Dollar said. “So, it’s very much a challenge to determine what those needs are.”
The legislature’s Program Evaluation Division is getting bids from engineering firms to conduct the study. Although lawmakers expect it to cost more than the $1 million they have budgeted for it, they said it will be worth the cost if it helps the state spend money more effectively.
Rep. Garland Pierce, a Democrat from Scotland County, said he supports the study, but feels that paying $1 million or more is not good use of public money.
“I’m amazed that they are spending that much money,” he said “… Counties can best assess their school construction needs. Why should we pay such a large amount to a company that is just going to go and collect from the school system information that is already known?”