It is hard to know where to begin this column on school construction. Do I start with the county commissioners’ flip-flop on covering cost increases beyond projections? Do I start with The Pilot’s editorial assigning blame to the school system for its inability to control construction industry price inflation? Do I start with a discussion of the odd bifurcation in North Carolina of school operating responsibility versus school funding responsibility? Or do I start with the perversion of fiscal responsibility that permeates public policy throughout the country?
Initially, the county commissioners indicated that they would cover the higher cost. Within days, they backed off that commitment. At that point, they claimed to be honoring what the public said.
But what did the public actually say when it overwhelmingly approved the borrowing almost a year ago? Unlike many places, North Carolina does not have provisions for public referendums on matters of public policy. The public actually votes directly on a very limited number of items like constitutional amendments and the issuance of general obligation debt.
It is this latter category under which the recent school bond vote falls. The public votes on whether to allow the issuance of general obligation debt, which commits the full faith and credit of a government to support that debt. So the public did not vote to build new schools, nor did it vote on how much to spend on those schools. Those are decisions of the county commissioners. They did not need a vote of the public to spend money that is being used to build the new McDeeds Creek school.
So the claim to be following the will of the voters totally misrepresents what the voters actually voted on. It is further disingenuous for the commissioners to say they cannot spend any more money on school construction not approved by a bond vote when the lack of a bond vote did not stop them from funding the McDeeds Creek school.
Also falling into the category of disingenuous is The Pilot editorial castigating the school system for being unable to accurately forecast the future. It is a bizarre notion that unfortunately I saw many times during my career.
Once a public entity makes a forecast, that forecast becomes set in stone, unable to change and adapt to new conditions.
On the matter of construction estimates, you are damned if you do, and damned if you don’t: If you estimate cost inflation high, you are said to be padding the budget. In contrast, if you try to avoid the padding invective by forecasting low inflation, you run the risk of not having enough money to complete the project. So you use the best professional advice you can muster on construction cost forecasts and hope for the best.
What is not the best is how North Carolina divides responsibility for school operations from responsibility for funding schools. With this system, neither the school board nor the county commissioners can be truly responsible for how our schools perform. Either one can effectively blame the other and have cogent arguments for doing so.
Other states do things differently. In some states there are independent school districts that not only operate the schools but also have the authority to set their own tax rates to fund schools. I have lived in another state where the county board had direct authority over the schools by appointing the school board and setting the tax rate. Either way clearly vests responsibility in one elected body which the voters can hold accountable for school performance.
And ending this discussion, I have to point out the real problem that has led us to this construction funding conundrum: the perversion of fiscal responsibility.
When our elected officials define fiscal responsibility as never raising tax rates, we end up with buildings, infrastructure and equipment that deteriorates to the point of rapid decline. The result is an exponential increase in costs to repair, renovate, or replace those physical assets. And since we must have those assets to deliver public services, we eventually pay a much higher cost by delaying than we would have paid had we addressed them on a timely and systematic basis.
Had prior boards of county commissioners replaced schools in an orderly process over previous decades, we would not be trying to build three replacement schools all at once in a time of rapidly increasing construction cost inflation. We would have saved money over the long haul, and we would not now be faulting school staff and board for lacking clairvoyance.