Education

State Democrats file bill to place $3.9B bond referendum on November ballot

Several Democratic lawmakers filed a bill Thursday that would place a $3.9 billion bond for schools, colleges and universities, and water and sewer infrastructure  on the November ballot.

Under House Bill 1088, taxpayers would be asked to approve $2 billion for public schools to begin to address an estimated $8 billion in construction and renovation needs.

In addition to the $2 billion for schools, the lawmakers want to spend:

  • $800 million on water and sewer infrastructure.
  • $500 million on community colleges.
  • $500 million on the UNC system.
  • $100 million on the Museum of History and NC Zoo.

“2020 has seen the end of the longest economic expansion in history,” said Rep. Wesley Harris, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County who is one of the bill’s primary sponsors. “Unfortunately, we failed to take advantage of this growth to adequately fund the infrastructure needs of our state, which are the true drivers of long-term economic growth. Instead, our legislature chose tax cut after tax cut.”

Rep. Julie von Haefen, a Wake County Democrat; Rep.Raymond E. Smith Jr.; a Waye County Democrat and Rep. Kandie Smith, a Democrat from Pitt County also co-sponsored the bill.

The $3.9 billion bond proposal mirrors one previously floated by Gov. Roy Cooper.

Last year, Republicans backed a pay-as-you-go plan approved by the House and Senate to pay for infrastructure needs. It was vetoed by Cooper.

Republicans backers of the pay-as-you go scheme argued that it would get money to school districts quicker and save more than $1 million in interest payments.

“It allows you to spend more money on where you would like for it to be spent,” Sen. Harry Brown, an Onslow County Republican, said in 2019.

Democrats argued that the pay-as-you-go scheme would take money from the state’s general fund better spent on increasing teacher pay or fully funding the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

“As we approach a year with expected revenue shortfall, we must preserve every dollar in our general fund that we can, while still making sure we are able to fund our critical infrastructure needs,” Harris said.

Lawmakers expect state revenue shortfalls of between $2 billion and $4 billion because of the COVID-19 crisis, which closed the state’s economy.

North Carolina’s AAA bond rating from major rating agencies would allow the state to issue debt cheaper than nearly any other state, Harris said.

“This proposal begins to close the gap in our infrastructure needs, preserves our general fund for other pressing expenses, and the capital projects will be a job creator as our State’s economy begins to recover from the COVID19 crisis,” Harris said.

Education, News

Gov. Cooper renews push for bond referendum to build schools, upgrade water and sewer systems

Correction: The economic report mention is this story was released by the N.C. Department of Commerce.  

Gov. Roy Cooper is again pushing a statewide bond referendum for school construction and renovation following good financial news this week from the Debt Affordability Advisory Committee.

The committee reported that the state can afford to borrow up to $11 billion over the next 10 years.

In addition to $2 billion for K-12 schools, Cooper’s $3.9 billion spending proposal includes $500 million each for community colleges and UNC System schools, $800 million for local water and sewer projects and $100 million for the N.C. History Museum and the N.C. Zoo. Click here to see the bond proposal.

Cooper also proposed a $3.9 billion bond referendum last summer.

“We must build schools to get our children out of trailers and reduce class sizes, and a bond now at extremely low interest rates is affordable and necessary,” Cooper said in a statement. “Our state is growing at a remarkable pace, and we should let the people vote on a bond that would help us keep up with the demands of that growth.”

According to the N.C. Department of Commerce’s most recent economic report, the state’s population grew about 1.1% between 2017-18, adding about 113,000 people. North Carolina’s growth outpaced the nation (0.6%) and the South (0.9 percent).

And since 2010, the state’s population has grown about 8.5 %, nearly three percentage points better than the rest of the nation, which grew at 5.8 % clip.

Cooper’s bond proposal was immediately criticized by State Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican from Jacksonville, who contends a debt-financed bond would cost taxpayers $1 billion in unnecessary interest payments.

It’s an argument Brown made often during budget negotiations last summer when the GOP proposed a $4.4 billion “pay-as-you-go” scheme to build new schools over a 10-year period.

“Why in the world would we max out the credit card when we can just use cash to build new schools instead?” Brown asked. “It doesn’t make a lick of sense.”

Cooper noted in his press release that Republican leaders never responded to a compromise version of his school construction proposal last year that did not contain a bond.

He argues that a bond is “fiscally responsible” because it offers “stability for school districts, college and universities and local governments planning their budgets.

News

Durham DA to speak at Black August in the Park’s BOND*ference event

Durham District Attorney Satana Deberry.

Last week NC Policy Watch spoke with Durham District Attorney  Satana Deberry about the progressive changes she’s brought to her office and the results she’s already seen in the first six months.

This week, Deberry will be the guest for the At The Intersection podcast event as part of Durham’s fifth annual Black August in the Park.

Black August in the Park is an annual event hosted by the collective of the same name. The group calls the event  “reminiscent of a Black family reunion or a homecoming, with an additional emphasis on providing a platform for, and elevating the causes of social justice organizations.”

Deberry will speak live on Friday with hosts Marion Johnson and Brian Kennedy at part of BAP’s inaugural BOND*ference event.

Kennedy is a public policy analyst with the NC Budget and Tax Center, a project of the NC Justice Center, parent organization of NC Policy Watch.

Johnson, formerly of the NC Justice Center, is a public policy consultant with Frontline Solutions.

Their podcast, At The Intersection, investigates the intersection of policy, culture and identity. The show was recently a finalist for Best Local Podcast in Indyweek’s annual Best of the Triangle competition.

This year’s inaugural BOND*ference event is Friday, Aug. 9 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m at the 21C Hotel at 111 North Corcoran Street in Durham.

Deberry will speak with At The Intersection from 4:15 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Tickets and info on registration can be found here.

Education

Bill would give state superintendent power to approve bond issuance for charters

The House Education Committee has given a favorable report to a Senate bill that would give the State Superintendent the power to approve charter school facility bonds.

Under Senate Bill 392, charters seeking approval to issue private activity bonds would be able to bypass local governments, which must sign off on the financing option now.

The superintendent could approve the issuance of the bonds after holding a public hearing.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Deanna Ballard, (R-Watauga) who said allowing the State Superintendent to approve such requests would give charters an alternative to local governments that may not want to approve them for political reasons.

“In some cases local governments have refused to grant their approval even though the public charter school financing has no impact on their budgets,” Ballard said. “All this is really simply doing is adding another option for the local entities whether it be the city or the county to have available should they not want to vote on this.”

Ballard said it makes sense to give the authority to the superintendent who oversees the state’s charter schools.

“This is purely an administrative matter and there are multiple states that do something very similar,” Ballard said.

Ballard and other bill supporters want to avoid the kind of situation that played out in Durham a year ago when the Durham City Council voted 5-2 to not approve a bond request for Excelsior Classical Academy, which sought financing to pay off a bridge load it used to buy the building it had been leasing.

Council members who voted against the bond request did so in a show of support for Durham Public Schools, which they contend has been harmed by an expansion of charters in the county.

“Rather than acting as labs for innovation and exploration, I believe that charters are now becoming a mechanism by which public education in our state and our community is being threatened and being harmed,” Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson said at the time.

Private activity bonds are tax-exempt bonds issued by or on behalf of a local or state government for the purpose of providing special financing for projects of private users that have some public benefit.

Charters receive better rates with private activity bonds than they would using banks or taking corporate loans.

A move to lift enrollment cap for virtual charters

SB 392 was introduced as a stand-alone bill. But a PCS (proposed committee substitute) would bring sweeping changes to the state’s two virtual charters schools.

Under the bill, N.C. Virtual Academy and N.C, Connections Academy would be allowed to increase enrollments to up 3,000 students. The pilot program, which enabled the schools would also be extended from four to eight years.

The State Board of Education [SBE] would be allowed to waive the 3,000-student cap beginning in the eighth year of the schools’ operation.

The legislation authorizing the two K-12 schools capped student enrollment in any virtual charter school at 1,500 students in the school’s first year of operation. It allows virtual charters to increase enrollment by 20 percent up to a maximum student enrollment of 2,592 in the fourth year of the pilot program.

The SBE can waive the maximum student enrollment threshold beginning in the fourth year of the school’s operation, if it determines it is in the best interests of students.

Democratic lawmakers have been critical of efforts to increase enrollment at the two schools because students attending them have not performed well academically. Both schools have earned “Ds” under the state’s letter grading system and neither has met expected student academic growth since opening in 2015.

State Rep. Graig Meyer (D-Orange), proposed an amendment to prevent NC Virtual Academy and NC Connections Academy from increasing its enrollment but it failed on a 14-11 vote.

“It makes no sense to expand struggling schools that are part of a pilot program,” Meyer said in an interview.

He said the legislature should not be in the business of determining when charters open, close or expand.

“That is what our State Board of Education and Charter School Advisory Board is for,” Meyer said.

Senate PCS 392 would also give the SBE the authority to renew a charter for less than 10 years or not at all if the percentage of charter students scoring at or above grade level on state tests is at least 5 percentage points lower than the scores of students attending traditional public schools in the district in which the charter is located.

Under current law, the SBE could renew for less than 10 years or not renew if:

  • The charter school has not provided financially sound audits for the immediately preceding three years.
  • The charter school’s student academic outcomes for the immediately preceding three years have not been comparable to the academic outcomes of students in the local school administrative unit in which the charter school is located.
  • The charter school is not, at the time of the request for renewal of the charter, substantially in compliance with State law, federal law, the school’s own bylaws, or the provisions set forth in its charter granted by the State Board of Education.
Education

Gov. Cooper wants a $3.9 billion education bond, 9 percent pay raises for teachers

Gov. Roy Cooper on Tuesday proposed a robust $3.9 billion education bond for school construction and renovation projects.

He also called for an average nine percent pay raise for teachers over the next two years to put North Carolina on a path to become the best state in the Southeast for teacher pay in four years.

No teacher would receive less than a three percent raise in either of the next two years, under Cooper’s plan.

“North Carolina ranks 37th in teacher pay, and that’s not good enough,” Cooper said in a statement. “We need to put our schools first and that starts with paying teachers and principals better and treating them like the professionals they are.”

Cooper shared news about the pay proposal while attending a conference for middle school educators in Greensboro.

His spending plan would restore extra pay to teachers who hold master’s degrees in the subjects they teach. Lawmakers cut the pay in 2013.

North Carolina teachers marched for better pay last May.

The plan would also eliminate the requirement that teachers pay for substitutes when they take a personal day, give principals experience-based raises and restore salary supplements for principals who hold advanced degrees.

Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators (NCAE), applauded Cooper’s plan to increase teacher pay and restore extra pay for advanced degrees.

“Ensuring that our educators are professionally compensated is one of the NCAE’s top legislative priorities,” Jewell said. “Competitive salaries will help recruit and retain the best and most diverse educators to our schools.”

A bill making its way through the Senate would also restore master’s pay for teachers who hold the degree in the subjects that they teach.

Education bond

Meanwhile, Cooper’s bond proposal is $2 billion more than the $1.9 billion proposed by House Speaker Tim Moore.

News of Cooper’s plan began to trickle out while Moore shared the detail of his plan with the House Education-K-12 Committee, which unanimously approved the measure and advanced it to the Finance Committee.

Cooper’s plan includes $2.1 billion for K-12 projects, $500 million each for facility improvements at community colleges and UNC System universities and $100 million for the N.C. History Museum and the N.C. Zoo.

Under Moore’s plan, House Bill 241, $1.5 billion in bond money would be earmarked for K-12 construction and renovation projects. The UNC system and state community colleges would get $200 million each.

Moore couldn’t be reached for comment late Tuesday afternoon.

The state Senate has also proposed a pay-as-you-go plan for school construction and renovation the Senate leadership contends would generate $6 billion over 10 years for K-12, community colleges and UNC System construction needs.

“A bond is the smartest way to invest in school construction and renovation and other critical needs without causing harmful cuts elsewhere,” Cooper said. “With a school bond, we’ll get hammers swinging all across the state and still be able to afford good teachers and principals.”

More than $8 billion in construction and renovation needs have been identified for K-12 schools across the state.

Voters would also be asked to approve an $800 million bond proposal to invest in clean water through local water and sewer projects.

Cooper’s spending plan would also:

  • Provide $5 million to recruit, retain, and support quality teachers and $5.3 million for more professional development opportunities for teachers and school leaders.
  • Invest $4 million to expand the Teaching Fellows program to include more universities and more types of teachers.
  • Provide $40 million to hire more school nurses, counselors, psychologists, social workers and school resource officers.
  • Spend $15 million for safety improvements and training at K-12 schools.
  • Provide $29 million in new funding for schools to purchase more textbooks, digital resources, instructional supplies, and enhanced digital learning opportunities for students.

“Better pay for educators, safe, modern school buildings, and opportunities for students to learn and stay healthy are critical to our state’s future and we must invest in them,” Cooper said.