As Education Spending Grabs Spotlight, Deteriorating Schools Get Little Aid
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory says his upcoming budget will focus on education with $291 million in new funding expected to go to K - 12 public schools. The money is earmarked for technology, student growth and educational materials. But school officials in Guilford County say that won’t help their most critical problem: several schools that are literally falling apart.
At High Point Central High School, principal Robert Christina points to the side of the building. He says during heavy rain, a waterfall cascades over the structure. Green mold scales up the wall and Christina says the water has damaged the slate roof.
“It chips away at the mortar that keeps the brick together and compromises the integrity of the whole structure,” says Christina.
Inside, the problems continue. Plaster falls from the ceiling in the auditorium, floors are cracked and the bathrooms need to be replaced.
High Point Central is one of the fastest growing high schools in Guilford County and Christina says the students and teachers deserve better.
“We want a school where young people, particularly as an inner city school, come to a place that is better than where they come from,” says Christina. “You’re part of it and you go to class in it and you’re surrounded by it. You certainly don’t want them to be surrounded by disrepair when you are trying to get them to think big and have dreams. It doesn’t look very good, does it now?”
A recent report from the National Education Association shows the Tar Heel state ranks 48th in the nation for per pupil spending, which includes federal and local dollars. State Superintendent June Atkinson says the General Assembly needs to find more ways to invest now.
“It has a cumulative effect and North Carolina must take a long-term view because how we invest in preschool education, what we do in kindergarten, first, second and third grade really has an impact on what happens 12 years later and we can’t forget that,” says Atkinson.
But State Rep. Bryan Holloway, a Republican from King, says he’s tired of the legislature getting all of the blame. He says education spending represents more than half of the state's budget. He adds federal money is down and capital improvements are funded by the education lottery and bond referendums, which local counties oversee.
“For local counties, they have to prioritize their money," says Holloway. "See, that’s another thing that a lot of people don’t know. When we give money to the counties for supplies or for technology they have flexibility to do anything they want to do with that money.”
The Guilford County Commission refused to comment on this story after repeated attempts by WFDD.
But the numbers shed light on part of the story. As it turns out, the state has doled out a lot less lottery money over the years for capital improvements. In 2009, the county received $11.7 million. By 2013, it was more like $5 million.
But Angie Henry, the Chief Financial Officer with Guilford schools, says the county is using that lottery money to pay off debts from school improvement projects rather than funding new ones.
“I think if you talked to the counties they’d say they’re having to pick up more of what the state, constitutionally, is supposed to be picking up. So that means they have fewer resources available to address the capital needs,” says Henry. "“Certainly I feel like our county should be funding more in terms of capital. They are dealing with some debt service expenses from voter approved bonds in 2003 and 2008. But at the same time, do you pay now and maintain the buildings and keep them in good shape or do you pay later by having to replace or renovate buildings that weren’t properly maintained?"
But teachers say it's a problem that needs immediate attention. Evelyn Atkins is a teacher at Peeler
Elementary in Greensboro—where more than 70 percent of students receive free and reduced price lunch. Peeler's heating system is in dire need of upgrading. The principal of the school has to light the over 50 year-old boiler by himself every morning.
“It’s hard. I don’t understand when we have an Education Lottery,” says Atkins. But she knows one thing for sure---North Carolina schools won’t improve if things don’t change soon. “So we are at the bottom and there is a reason: not enough money to excel our students to learn.”
Atkins worries about how that impacts a lot of things, having enough text books, school supplies-- even whether she can afford to continue teaching here. But for now, she just hopes the heat is on in the morning.
Follow Keri Brown on Twitter @kerib_news