Complaints range from undrinkable water to termites to sewer flies. Old air conditioners trigger water leaks, mold and breathing concerns, but not enough cold air.
No, these aren’t conditions in tenements. They’re reports from inside N.C. public schools across the state.
As classroom teachers with almost 60 combined years of experience, we have never faced headwinds like this. A pandemic burns through our communities. The statewide shortage of teachers and school bus drivers is real. And when we need them the most, our schools have too few nurses and social workers.
Then, there’s the deplorable condition of too many N.C. school buildings. Earlier this month, the state Department of Public Instruction released an alarming report that got little attention. It said the price to renovate and rebuild N.C. schools jumped 58% over the last five years to $12.8 billion.
The report was overshadowed by a statewide school bus driver shortage and news of five Guilford County schools temporarily closing because of failing air conditioners. In Guilford County, the state’s third largest school district, schools average 55 years old. As classes started in the August heat, 1,000 AC work orders from 40 schools flooded an understaffed maintenance crew.
Unfortunately, Guilford is not an outlier. After the first month of classes, the N.C. Association of Educators surveyed educators about building conditions. The responses were startling. The list reads like a slumlord’s rap sheet.
▪ Near UNC-Chapel Hill an elementary school’s water is undrinkable and loaded with heavy metals.
▪ Down east, a Wayne County teacher said termite and bee infestations drove teachers from high school classrooms.
▪ Near the Pinehurst golf resort, a Moore County teacher said her high school was deteriorating and extremely overcrowded. Built for 1,800 students, it now holds 2,300.
▪ On the S.C. border, a Columbus County educator said her school is 90 years old with mold in the ceiling and years of grime caked on restroom stalls.
▪ Near the Georgia state line, the cafeteria ceiling leaks in a Macon County high school where some buildings are 70 years old.
▪ A Brunswick County teacher said her school was over 80 years old with rodents, sewer flies and mouse traps in the library.
Meanwhile in Raleigh — in a General Assembly building where thermostats hover comfortably at 70 to 72 degrees — state lawmakers are almost three months late with a state budget. Lawmakers sit on a $6.5 billion surplus. The recurring sticking point is the size of corporate tax cuts, not public school construction. That speaks volumes about priorities.
The governor’s budget proposal would ask voters to approve a construction bond that would include $2.5 billion for public schools. North Carolina has not had a statewide school bond in 25 years, during a period when both Republicans and Democrats had controlled the legislature. Leaders of the General Assembly don’t want a bond now. Instead, they want to invest only a third of what the governor proposes for school construction and renovation.
But wasn’t the “Education Lottery” supposed to help build schools? It’s a nagging question the public often raises, and some politicians are asking too. The lottery broke sales records during the pandemic, and more lottery revenue is going to schools, but state lawmakers have steadily slashed the percentage of lottery revenue dedicated to schools. They also cut the percentage earmarked for school construction. Meantime, lawmakers are using lottery revenue to pay for school expenses that the normal state budget used to cover.
A small bipartisan group of lawmakers filed a bill six months ago titled “Restore Lottery Funding for Schools.” So far, it has not come up for a vote.
School modernization money could come to North Carolina through the federal Build Back Better infrastructure program, but our state has the funding to renovate and rebuild our public schools right now.
Kenya Donaldson is an educator of 23 years in Guilford County Schools and president of the Guilford County Association of Educators. John deVille has spent 25 years as a high school history teacher in Macon County and is president of the Macon County Association of Educators.