A recent video by EdNC documented the struggles of Edgecombe County community residents in the wake of the devastating hurricane that swept through the region last fall. The disaster has a particularly acute and devastating effect on children- many of whom remain displaced and who lack reliable and consistent access to basic necessities such as food, clothing and shelter. The psychological trauma will undoubtedly have a lasting impact and our children, the most vulnerable members of any community, will suffer the most harm if we fail to address their needs. In addition, we must take steps to remedy the underlying inequalities surrounding how we support our infrastructure needs.
The federal government has delivered just $6 million dollars in relief funding, less than one percent of the $929 million Gov. Cooper requested. This amount can only add insult to injury in a region where chronic under investments have left public infrastructure more at risk than any other part of our state.
The need to address our nation’s crumbling infrastructure is a point most democrats and republicans can agree on. In signaling its commitment to the issue, the Trump White House declared the week of June 7th, “infrastructure week.”
What has yet to be determined in Trump’s $200 billion dollar infrastructure spending proposal (privatize everything and rely on limited ‘public-private partnerships’ where necessary), is the fate of our nation’s second largest sector of public infrastructure spending (after highways): school facilities.
While K-12 schools account for the largest public building sector in the country, the federal government provides almost no funding for capital construction. In North Carolina, our state constitution and school finance law requires the funding for instructional expenses, including school personnel, to come from the state while local counties are responsible for funding capital expenses, including school building construction and maintenance. Statewide and local bond measures are an additional way to generate funds for capital construction. This division accounts for the discrepancies in education investments made across counties and reinforces the economic disparities existing in communities as children from low wealth school districts are being educated in deteriorating, often unsafe and unhealthy school buildings.
In spring of 2016, the report The State of Our Schools: America’s K-12 Facilities determined that underinvestment in public school facilities will account for a $46 billion projected annual gap in funding.
Nationally, states and districts spent a total of $925 billion in 2014 dollars on maintenance and operations (M&O): daily cleaning, grounds keeping, maintenance, utilities, and security of facilities. This amount equaled an annual average of nearly $46 billion per year for M&O over these 20 years. From 2011–2013, spending increased to an average of $50 billion a year.
In addition to M&O spending, states and districts invested $973 billion in 2014 dollars (an average of $49 billion per year), from their capital budgets for new school construction and capital projects to improve existing schools. Over the past three years (2011-13), the combined spending and investment totaled nearly $99 billion per year.
The nation’s current system of facilities funding leaves school districts unprepared to provide adequate and equitable school facilities. Comparing historic spending against building industry and best-practice standards for responsible facilities stewardship, we estimate that national spending falls short by about $8 billion for M&O and $38 billion for capital construction. In total, the nation is underspending on school facilities by $46 billion — an annual shortfall of 32 percent. Gaps vary by state and local district, depending on investments by local communities and the structure of school facilities funding at the state level. Nevertheless, investment levels in all states but three will not meet the standards.
In addition to the unmet funding needs, North Carolina’s student population is projected to increase by 6% or more by fall 2026. In the next five years, North Carolina’s capital needs for school construction will top an estimated $8 billion. In addition, and in stark contrast to our expected population growth, public school investments have yet to return to their pre-recession levels. State bond referendums remain an inadequate and unsustainable funding strategy. The $1.9 billion school bond referendum bill being considered would certainly help low-wealth districts where the necessary tax base for local capital funding does not exist, however even this amount falls far short of the amount needed.
A troubling aspect of Trump’s proposal is contained in his second (of four) “key principals” outlined:
Encourage Self-Help. Many States, tribes, and localities have stopped waiting for Washington to come to the rescue and have raised their own dedicated revenues for infrastructure. Localities are better equipped to understand the right level – and type – of infrastructure investments needed for their communities, and the Federal Government should support more communities moving toward a model of independence.
Unfortunately, local communities dealing with chronic underinvestment, which are then saddled with the financial devastation brought on my natural disasters, are in no position to generate the necessary revenue to address their public infrastructure needs. Indeed, instead of reluctant ‘rescuer,’ we require a responsive government that upholds its duty and responsibilities and works to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all our people. While it is true that we remain at the mercy of Mother Nature, political will and good governance can and must ensure that people are able to get on with their lives once the storms pass.