County commissioners talk school funding

By Andy Winemiller -

STATE ROAD — The $170 million listed in recent schools facilities studies is more funding than Surry County has spent on school capital projects in the past three decades, says one county official.

At the Surry County Board of Commissioners’ planning retreat in late February, Finance Officer Sarah Bowen provided a snapshot of the county’s financial position to commissioners. The presentation prompted a lengthy conversation regarding school funding.

“Fourteen of 14 for schools failed,” noted Commissioner Van Tucker, describing how each recent referendum for a sales tax for schools has failed across the state. “The closest of those is just across the line in Stokes (County).”

Bowen had provided a document indicating which sales tax increases for schools had passed and failed in recent elections.

“I’m OK with voters saying ‘no,’” said Commissioner Larry Phillips. “They must have the say. It forces school boards to be accountable.”

Commissioners have been looking for ways to fund facilities improvements for the county’s three school systems since the three districts presented facilities studies in 2013 and 2014. The figures included in those studies note the schools in Surry County are in need of more than $170 million in overhauls.

The county board has identified a way to fund $60 million in school capital projects by way of financing throughout the course of the next few years.

The plan involves no tax increases, and commissioners want voters to make the call regarding any tax increases needed to fill the void in funding.

He is hoping a bill will be introduced in the N.C. General Assembly to broaden the approved use of an Article 43 sales tax. Phillips told commissioners that the tax sales of one-half cent is not levied by Surry County. As the law currently stands, it could only be used for transportation funding. However, the bill Phillips has worked with legislators to prepare would allow counties to levy the tax and earmark it for school capital projects.

“But only by a vote of the people,” added Phillips.

He noted the bill broadening the use of the monies would not allow the sales-tax increase to be instituted by the board. It would require voters to make the decision at the polls.

The half-cent sales tax increase — if the money is freed up by legislators and if the residents of the county approved an increase — would generate about $4 million annually for use on school capital projects, according to Phillips.

“We can push for it,” said Commissioner Larry Johnson.

Johnson explained the county and school boards would have to push hard to get a message to voters, as many head to the polls without educating themselves on the issues. Twenty-three percent of Surry County voters voted to retain former Commissioner Paul Johnson in the 2016 general election, a man who was ineligible to even hold public office.

Phillips said the figures presented by school officials for needed capital improvements are daunting. The county only spent about $130 million over the past 30 years on school capital.

“We would have to get out in front of it with messaging,” said Phillips. “Don’t come to me with blue lights and expect me to sign off on a tax increase.”

Phillips was referencing a recent move by Surry County Schools to place emergency call kiosks on the campuses of the district’s high schools. The move, which was pulled from the county board’s agenda by school officials, would have cost the Surry County taxpayer about $152,000 for the equipment. Installation and installation materials were not included in the estimate for the kiosks.

Phillips’ study regarding school funding also notes the county has increased its overall funding for schools by more than 33 percent since 2005.

Prior to Phillips’ work on the Article 43 sales tax, the county had considered putting a bond referendum for school capital in front of Surry County voters.

A bond, if approved by voters, would authorize the county to borrow monies, with taxpayers agreeing to property tax increases in order to service the debts. However, members of the county board believe the possible sales tax increase could be a better way to fund the improvements.

“A bond would fail,” said board Chair Eddie Harris. “A sales-tax increase could pass.”

“I don’t believe we can soak property owners with taxes anymore,” added Harris. “The sales tax is more fair and equitable. Everybody pays it.”

Phillips said there are a lot of things which must happen for the tax plan to work. The new use of the Article 43 tax would have to be approved by lawmakers, and, if that happens, voters must approve the tax.

He said school boards, however, must look forward to such a campaign by showing residents they are being good stewards of the public dollar.

“The school boards must rein it in,” explained Phillips. “They can’t sell this to voters when they are asking for blue lights, to purchase property at East Surry (High School) — nonessential requests.”

By Andy Winemiller

Andy is a staff writer and may be reached at 415-4698.

Andy is a staff writer and may be reached at 415-4698.

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