North Carolina’s State Education Lottery has been raking in some big totals in recent years. Last year the lottery brought in more money than ever and due to increased revenues $395 million will be available for a new round of school grants with applications due next month.
The three school systems of Surry County are each preparing grant submissions to get a piece of the pie for school repairs as part of a program that will consider overall needs of the county rather than just student headcount.
Lottery pays out
The General Assembly established the Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund in 2017 to provide financial assistance to lower-wealth counties for construction of new school buildings. It is the lottery that is the sole income source for this fund that is administered by the NC Department of Public Instruction.
In a change ushered in for 2022, the way in which the state divides up lottery winnings for school construction was revised. Under previous models, smaller and poorer counties were having trouble accessing the grants that were available.
A tiered system now prioritizes grant requests based on economic factors of that county. Lower-income counties can apply for much larger grants, up to $50 million for high schools. For the first time, they can use those grants for repairs instead of only new construction.
Wholly new schools are not what many systems need, “They just need the access to funds that allow them to repair what they have and keep it maintained and updated and renovated,” Kevin Leonard, director of the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners told WRAL in December.
With $395 million on the line, Surry County Schools, Elkin City Schools and Mount Airy City Schools are each preparing grant requests. Surry County will in fact be sending in three separate grant requests for each of their high schools.
Dr. Kim Morrison of Mount Airy, Dr. Myra Cox of Elkin, and Dr. Travis Reeves from Surry County each shared their proposals with the county commissioners. The board needs to know what is being asked for, if any of the grant requests are approved, there will be a partial match of local dollars required by the state.
On the menu
In Elkin, the priority remains GH Carpenter Gymnasium, of which renovations are ongoing. Some of the items being requested were included on earlier proposals, so partial costs associated with design were already addressed.
Carpenter needs a locker room redesign on the second floor that would make it both Title IX and Americans with Disabilities Act compliant. Building out a new hallway will move coaches’ offices out of the locker rooms to allow for more space, and more privacy. That hallway will also allow entrance to both sides of the gymnasium, fixing an access issue.
A full set of up-fits is needed to the toilets, sinks and lockers themselves. Cox said, “everything is original construction from the 1960s.” Replacing the old heating system and adding air conditioning round out the grant request for the gym, coming in at an asking price of $2.25 million.
“That gym has a lot of issues and there has long been a need,” Commissioner Eddie Harris observed. Also citing the need for equality as it relates to Title IX, he continued, “I support equal access and funding for all men and women in all aspects of education. As we know, that wasn’t always the case.”
Mount Airy City Schools are asking for assistance with their workforce development center that houses specialty programs including health science, drones, aviation, carpentry, and Childress Racing Partnership. A 1969 baby herself, the workforce building also needs help with ADA up-fits. “We’re adding on an elevator to a 1960s building that predates the ADA,” said Morrison.
The ADA compliance phase of the project is estimated to cost $1.2 million and would include the elevator inside the building, wider doors to allow wheelchair access to classrooms, and access to bathrooms.
A second phase addresses needs for covered walkways over wheelchair ramps, a cover is also needed over the wood storage area for the carpentry program, and she noted completion of labs within the building would be included as well.
Morrison said the total for the whole project would be around $3 million, and Commissioner Larry Johnson encouraged the phases be merged into one request to get the most bang for the buck.
The largest of the grant requests by far will be made by Surry County Schools where each of the three high schools is requesting $40 million or more in repairs. Reeves told the commissioners something they knew, the life expectancy on these building is roughly 50 years.
Having completed a phase of repairs on county elementary schools, the high schools are taking the focus.
All three schools were recipients of a new science wing back in 2000, and North Surry got its kitchen and cafeteria redone in 2007. That leaves a lot left to be done at these schools built within three years of one another who have passed the 50-year benchmark.
General needs of the three are similar: safety, security, ADA compliance, and parking. East and Central Surry are both in need of new kitchens. Additionally, more space is needed for administration and guidance staffs. He also noted that programs such as band, chorus or special education may be using classrooms not designed for such and may be sharing spaces.
All three have issues with aging plumbing, heating and air systems, and lighting issues that cannot be addressed without asbestos abatement. Reeves went on to note specific problems with traffic flow and parking lot issues that also require attention.
In total, North Surry’s request is $43.4 million, East Surry $39.9 million and Surry Central $43.6 million. Reeves said it would be overly optimistic to think that Surry County could get approval for all three, or $127 million of the total available pool.
“But, if we could get one, we won’t be back asking for more.”
As time marches on, the needs of the schools will grow as will the price. Should need-based grants be unsuccessful, the commissioners will be hearing about all of these items again in the near future.