By Tim Gardner
North Carolina Public Schools Superintendent Mark Johnson has announced that $141 million in grant funds from the Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund will be awarded this year to thirteen school districts, including those in Anson, Ashe, Caldwell, Caswell, Cherokee, Columbus, Martin, McDowell, Mitchell, Nash, Swain and Tyrrell counties. The grant awards will allow for construction of new school buildings in these economically distressed areas.
The County of Avery and its public school system jointly applied for grant monies through the Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund program, but that application was rejected. Had the application been approved, the fund could have provided the County with up to $10 million for capital projects. That amount is more than half of the estimated $19.5 million total cost for the pending Avery High School new construction and renovation project which was approved by the Avery Board of Commissioners earlier this year. However, the county was not guaranteed to receive that amount of funding, and is not promised any other funding.
Matching grants involve receiving the same amount of money spent, usually on types of purchases specified in the grant, and within a certain time frame.
The program did have a clause: If the County received grant funding, it would have had to forfeit lottery funds for five years. However, Avery County Manager Phillip Barrier said the County usually receives approximately $150,000.00 in lottery funding each year, meaning the County could have received much larger amounts from the Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund.
The application deadline was August 31, and details were sent from the Commissioners to Avery County Board of Education members and Avery Schools Superintendent Bryan Taylor, who prepared and submitted the application before its deadline.
The Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund was created by the General Assembly to assist school districts in lower-wealth counties through revenue from the North Carolina Education Lottery. Awards are capped at $15 million per project in Tier 1 (most distressed) counties and $10 million per project in Tier 2 counties. The law requires a local match of $1 for every $3 in grant funds in Tier 1 and $1 for every $1 in Tier 2. The fund was created to assist lower-wealth counties with their critical public school building capital needs.
County applications were reviewed based on priorities provided in the law, including ability to generate revenue, high debt-to-tax revenue ratio, and the extent to which a project will address critical deficiencies in adequately serving the current and future student population.
An emphasis was placed on projects that were far enough along in the planning process that construction could begin within 12 months.
Avery County does have other options to help fund the new high school project.
Barrier told the Commissioners during an official public session at their bi-monthly meeting on September 17 that the County also would be applying for a $19,500,000.00 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) loan for the high school project.
Barrier said he and County Attorney Michaelle Poore submitted that loan application before its September 30 deadline. He also noted that the County should receive notification soon if the USDA loan application has been approved or rejected.
Under the terms of an approved loan, the County would borrow the money from a bank, which Barrier said is being considered to be Wells Fargo because of its low interest rates, and then use that money to pay back the USDA.
Avery Schools Superintendent Bryan Taylor told the Commissioners that the County would not have to begin repaying that loan until the construction and renovations are completed.
The County also could get additional lottery funds, grant monies, borrow the money in full or in parts directly from a bank and/or use funds from a sales and use tax if a majority of the County’s voters approve the tax in the November 6 General Election to help pay for the school renovations and new construction.
If the county’s voters approve adding the sales tax, an extra 25 cents for every one hundred dollars ($100.00) spent would be created. Barrier said that could amount to as much as $690,000.00 annually. He added that the sales tax money would be placed in the county’s General Fund and could be spent on capital projects such as the high school’s new construction and renovation.
The additional sales and use tax would be in addition to all other state and local sales and use taxes.
“We’re disappointed that we were not approved to receive monies from Needs Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund, but we’ll keep working to obtain the needed funds for the high school project,” Taylor said. “I appreciate our Board of Education members, the County Commissioners and other County officials for their hard work in helping the school system with the project. We will keep plugging along collectively and see the project come to fruition.”
Adequate funds exist from the $1,700,000.00 lottery monies the County has already received to begin the initial phase of the construction and repairs such as making the necessary designs and preparing the bid documents, Barrier said.
The complete list of schools approved for monies from the Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund include:
Anson County: $15 million for initial costs for a new Anson Middle School ($49.4 million total project cost)
Ashe County: $15 million for a new Ashe County Middle School ($34.9 million total project cost)
Caldwell County: $15 million for a new Granite Falls Middle School ($20 million total project cost)
Caswell County: $15 million for a new Bartlett Yancey High School ($32 million total project cost)
Cherokee County: $15 million for Early College High School, Alternative High School, Career Academy ($20 million total project cost)
Columbus County, Columbus County Schools: $10.6 million for West Columbus PK-8 ($19.1 million total project cost)
Columbus County, Whiteville City Schools: $4.3 million for new buildings at Whiteville High School ($21.1 million total project cost)
Martin County: $5.3 million for a new CTE Center ($7.1 million total project cost)
McDowell County: $15 million for a new Old Fort Elementary School ($21.2 million total project cost)
Mitchell County: $15 million for a new grades 3-8 elementary school/middle school ($26.5 million total project cost)
Nash County, Nash-Rocky Mount: $10 million for a new Red Oaks Elementary School ($20 million total project cost)
Swain County: $4.7 million for a new building at Swain High School ($7 million total project cost)
Tyrrell County: $637,000 for Columbia High School/Early College ($850,000 total project cost).
“I thank the General Assembly for making these funds available to help schools in areas that are most in need,” Johnson said. “I look forward to seeing these projects get under way in the coming months. Through these grants, we will help address our state’s need to replace old, outdated schools with better learning environments. This is the second year these funds have been made available to benefit our students and educators who have had to deal with outdated facilities.”