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Lawmakers, education leaders hold forum on school construction bond

House leader Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland presents a state flag to Erwin Elementary Principal Thomas Backus at a forum on a proposed statewide school construction bond.  (CJ photo by Lindsay Marchello)
House leader Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland presents a state flag to Erwin Elementary Principal Thomas Backus at a forum on a proposed statewide school construction bond. (CJ photo by Lindsay Marchello)

Republican lawmakers and education leaders sat down with Harnett County school and county officials at Erwin Elementary School on Thursday, Jan. 17, to discuss a possible statewide school construction bond.

State Superintendent Mark Johnson and Speaker of the House Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, led the forum. They were joined by Harnett Republican legislators Rep. David Lewis, Rep. Larry Strickland, and Rep. John Sauls. Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, and Rep. Linda Johnson, R-Cabarrus also attended.

“Sometimes people think we have these forums to just make people aware, but actually we came here today to listen,” Linda Johnson said.

Mark Johnson said the forum was the start of a long conversation about a statewide school construction bond. It’s not just about patching up old schools, but rather a move to help modernize schools and bring them into the 21st century.

Erwin Elementary seemed the ideal location for a conversation over school facility needs. The building was built decades ago and is starting to show its age. Pipes are leaking pipes and walls are cracked.

Jason Lemons, chairman of the Harnett County School Board, said Erwin is a beloved school, but it needs to be competitive in the 21st century.

“It was 1949 when I first started school, and it looked like this one,” Horn said.

Harnett County Schools Superintendent Aaron Fleming said a statewide school construction bond could benefit the aging school, but it would also provide relief to other schools across the state. Not only are districts dealing with aging schools, but many are still recovering from two major hurricanes.

Some school districts are also grappling with a growing student population. Harnett County’s growth is in the double digits, and it’s starting to impact the schools. Students are forced to learn in mobile trailers and “huts” because there isn’t enough room in the main building.

A price tag for the bond hasn’t been determined, but it will more than the previous $1.3 billion proposed last year in a bill Horn and Johnson crafted. While the previous proposal failed to gain traction last year, Republican lawmakers are ready in 2019 to pursue a school construction bond.

The purpose of the listening tour is to help people get a sense of how much various districts — both rural and urban — need to repair, build, and generally modernize their schools.

“The bond is going to cost something, but I believe it is going to return much more than it is going to cost,” Sauls said.

Sauls said property taxes in Harnett County aren’t enough to fund the construction needs.

Lewis agreed.

“We have an opportunity here where neighbors can invest in neighbors,” Lewis said.

Moore said voters probably won’t see a bond referendum until the primary election in 2020. Until then, lawmakers and school leaders will continue touring the state and getting input from local education and county officials on what they need to build better schools.