The House K-12 Education committee OK’d the statewide school construction bond bill, but questioned the formula used to decide how much each county would get for school construction.

The committee met Tuesday to debate House Bill 241. It pledges $1.9 billion to fund the construction and renovation of public school buildings, community colleges, and facilities for the UNC System. Of that, $1.5 billion would go to PreK-12 public schools. Community colleges would get $200 million, and the state’s universities would receive the rest.

But before schools can get the money, voters would have to approve the measure on the 2020 March primary ballot. And it would have to pass a skeptical state Senate. Senators would prefer to direct current tax collections to school construction instead of borrowing money.

The statewide school construction bond is spearheaded by House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland. Reps. Linda Johnson, R-Cabarrus; Jeffrey Elmore, R-Wilkes; and Craig Horn, R-Union are also primary sponsors.

“I believe that this bill is critical as we move forward to the 21st century to make sure our classrooms are the best they can be,” Moore told lawmakers during the committee hearing.

Several lawmakers questioned how the bond formula for each county worked. The amount is based on average daily membership, growth of ADM, and includes a 40 percent weight for “low wealth” schools and an adjustment factor to ensure every county receives at least $10 million. If a county has several school districts, the $10 million would be split among them.  

The bill doesn’t require matching funds for counties that receive an allocation for low wealth or for the $10 million minimum adjustment.

“The difficulty with formulas is sometimes there appears to be winners and losers,” Rep. Kevin Corbin, R-Macon said.

Corbin said rural counties often get shortchanged over facility funding because they don’t have a large student population or a large tax base. But he said the proposed bond addresses those challenges and for that it has his support.

“Had we not had the minimum, it would really hurt my counties, and we have fixed costs no matter how large our school system is,” Corbin said.

Gov. Roy Cooper, the N.C. School Board Association, and the N.C. Association of Educators have backed a bond to fund school construction across the state, but Cooper has suggested a much higher figure. The governor suggested a $3.9 billion general obligation bond at the March 5 North Carolina Association for Middle Level Education conference in Greensboro.

How much debt the state can take on to support a statewide bond is a point of contention among lawmakers. Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Orange, said he expects the vast majority of House members will support the bill, but he wanted to know why the amount was limited to $1.3 billion for public schools. (The bill designates $1.5 billion for public schools.)

“We know there is about $8 billion in needs right now and not just for repairs and upgrades, and we know we are a growing state,” Meyer said. “Why are we limiting this bill to only $1.3 [billion] when you [Moore] just acknowledged that we are in a very good position right now … for debt service?”

Moore said State Treasurer Dale Folwell told them that the debt capacity is about $2 billion. Going over that amount could affect the state’s credit rating.

“We don’t want to do anything that makes that debt capacity so high that it would interfere with our credit rating with those agencies,” Moore said.