Monday numbers: A closer look at the state’s school facility needs

By: - September 6, 2021 6:00 am

North Carolina has a nearly $13 billion backlog in new school construction and renovations, according to the 2020-21 Facility Needs Survey. 

The backlog represents an increase of more than $4 billion over the $8 billion reported in the Facility Needs Survey five years ago. 

Construction costs for new schools, as well as and additions and renovations to existing ones account for more than half — approximately $6.54 billion — of the costs identified in the 2020-21 survey. 

Critics of state tax cuts have long blamed the state’s growing backlog on North Carolina lawmakers’ decision to redirect the 7.25% of income tax revenues from the Public School Building Capital Fund to fill budget holes during the 2008 Great Recession. In 2013, lawmakers eliminated the corporate tax transfer to the Building Capital Fund to pay for some of the cuts they made to the corporate and personal income tax rates.     

It’s worth noting that North Carolina hasn’t held a state bond referendum for public schools since 1996. The $1.8 billion from that referendum was spent before 2005. 

In small part, enrollment growth has spurred the need for more funding to build schools. State education officials project a modest 2% enrollment increase in public schools over the next 10 years. Growth is projected to be greatest in grades K-8, while enrollment in grade 9-12 is projected to decrease. 

Overall enrollment has decreased 1.7% over the past five years.    

Construction costs, though, are significantly higher than five years ago.  

Many school districts included new classrooms for Pre-K students when submitting needs assessments to the state. According to the survey, 80 Pre-K classroom additions are needed over the next five years. Thirty-four new schools would include about 67 Pre-K classrooms. 

The state’s unfunded mandate for smaller class sizes also factors into facility needs. Thirteen schools reported construction needs related to policies to reduce class sizes. 

Meanwhile, 22 schools reported construction needs relating to replacement of mobile units with permanent construction within 1-2 years; 37 schools reported such needs within three to five years.

The Average Daily Membership Fund and the state Education Lottery allocated over $480 million between July 2015 and June 2020, the survey said. About 80% of that amount was used for debt service.  

Here’s a by the numbers look at the state’s school facilities needs for the next five years: 

$12.79 billion — Amount of school facilities needs over the next five years 

$8.3 billion — School facilities needs from 2026-2030

131 — Number of new schools needed over the next five years, totaling $4.8 billion in construction costs 

115,156 — Number of students to be served by the 131 schools

312 — Number of school building additions needed over the next five years, at a cost of $1.65 billion 

1,594 — Number of school renovations identified in the survey, worth $5.6 billion in expenditures 

$613 million — Amount needed for furniture and equipment

$64.6 million — Amount needed to purchase land 

83 — Number of schools that need replaced

$250 — Cost per square foot for new school construction in 2020, based on pre-pandemic construction figures

$194 — Per square foot cost for new school construction in 2015

$3.4 billion — Amount of local school bond referenda authorized by local voters since 2016, in 17 counties  

$500 million — Amount of state lottery funds allotted for school construction since 2016

$359 million  Amount of of needs-based lottery grants awarded since 2017, the year the grants became available. 

Source: NC Department of Public Instruction 

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.