New state budget a winning ticket for school repairs in smaller, poorer counties

15December 2021

— Changes included in the state budget mean public schools will soon be getting more money from the North Carolina Education Lottery.

Lottery proceeds, which totaled more than $700 million in the last fiscal year, are distributed to all 100 counties on a per-student basis. Although the lottery money is a tiny fraction of the state’s education spending, the formula leaves small counties, which often have numerous repair needs, at a disadvantage.

Schools in Warren County, for example, need a lot more work than the district can afford. A school had to close three years ago when the heating and cooling system stopped working, and Superintendent Keith Sutton said the district can’t pay to get it fixed.

“We’ve got about seven schools here. Four or five of those structures are in desperate need of repair [or] renovation and, in some cases, new construction,” said Sutton, a former Wake County Board of Education member who recently took charge of Warren County Schools.

“In terms of improving teaching and learning, we want our students [and] our faculty to be in an environment that is conducive to learning,” he said.

In past years, the state lottery paid out just $100 million statewide for school buildings. Again, the money was distributed based on the number of students, so Warren County got just $138,000 last year.

The new state budget gives every county $300,000 in lottery money this year and $500,000 next year for school repairs and renovations. Kevin Leonard, director of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, said that change will help a lot of smaller districts that can’t raise money.

“In some of those counties that have the greatest need, where they’re losing population, that also means they have – they’re losing their property tax base as well,” Leonard said.

When the lottery started 15 years ago, nearly half of the money raised was supposed to go toward school buildings. But that eventually eroded to close to 17 percent, Leonard said.

According to the state Department of Public Instruction, about $13 billion in construction and repairs is needed over the next five years in school districts across North Carolina.

“In this new budget, they have allocated, appropriated, money out of the lottery funds that almost reach 50 percent,” he said.

Lower-income counties can apply for much larger grants – up to $50 million – and for the first time, they can use those grants for repairs instead of only construction.

Leonard said most counties don’t need a new school every couple of years.

“They just need the access to funds that allow them to repair what they have and keep it maintained and updated and renovated,” he said.

Warren County is preparing to apply for one of those new, larger lottery grants, Sutton said.

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