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Republican senators offer alternative to statewide school bond referendum

State Senate leaders on Wednesday released a plan to pay for school construction and renovations without voter approval in a statewide bond referendum.

Under the proposal, the state would use money from the State Capital and Infrastructure Fund created in 2017 to pay interest payments on existing debt and fund capital improvements to state-owned buildings.

Senate leaders said their plan could raise $2 billion for K-12 schools over a nine-year period, and do it faster and cheaper than a referendum.

The UNC system and community colleges would receive $2 billion under Senate Bill 5 as well as state agencies.

“With a bond plan, you’re talking about over a $1 billion in interest payments where with this plan you don’t have any of that,” said Sen. Harry Brown, an Onslow County Republican. “It allows you to spend more money on where you would like for it to be spent.”

The bill is sponsored by Brown and Republican colleagues, Sens. Kathy Harrington (R-Gaston) and Joyce Krawiec (Forsyth).

It’s an alternative to a $1.9 billion bond referendum proposed by fellow Republican House speaker Tim Moore. The referendum has received support from Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat.

A spokesman for Cooper said the governor prefers a bond to pay for school construction, but is open to new ideas.

“Gov. Cooper is pushing for a bond to fund school construction and renovation without forcing harmful cuts in other areas and he will work with legislators and review their proposals to see if they accomplish that goal,” said Ford Porter, the governor’s press secretary.

The Fund, as it’s referred to in the bill, is basically a state savings account for major projects, and has approximately $237 million available this year.

But Brown said that amount will grow to about $1 billion each year as the state pays down debt.

The Fund currently receives 4 percent of General Fund tax revenue each year. That amount would be bumped up to 4.5 percent under the senator’s proposal.

According to the bill, local school districts that “demonstrate the greatest” needs would be given priority when Fund money is handed down.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson said in a statement that there’s an “urgency” and “need” for school construction.

“I am pleased to see agreement in the legislature on this point, and I look forward to working with our partners in the General Assembly as we continue to discuss the details of that funding,” Johnson said.

Brown added that the plan would allow school districts to comply with the state mandate requiring smaller K-3 class sizes

School leader have complained that the mandate was handed down without funding to make the capital improvements needed for smaller class sizes.

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