The proposition was clear three years ago for voters: Approve a $103 million bond referendum and Moore County Schools would build three new elementary schools in Aberdeen, Southern Pines and Pinehurst. The acceptance was overwhelming — 80 percent. To date, Aberdeen and Southern Pines are open, and Pinehurst is on track to open this summer. They’re beautiful schools and wonderful additions to our community.
But the good of that 2018 vote doesn’t end at the doors of those three schools. All those “yes” votes are also improving Carthage Elementary; Elise Middle School in Robbins; Sandhills Farm Life Elementary; Union Pines High School; Highfalls Elementary; and the Community Learning Center at Pinckney in Carthage.
All told, more than $2 million in improvements to other schools — totally unexpected yet totally real — has come from that vote. Even better, there’s more where that came from — $8.5 million more — and other schools could benefit.
A Real Opportunity ...
When Moore County sold the $103 million in bonds on the open market to investors, it received so-called “bond premiums” based on a number of factors. Consider it an extra credit “thank you” from investors. Aberdeen netted $2.38 million in bond premiums, of which commissioners spent $2 million last year for the above-mentioned projects. Southern Pines has $3.4 million in premiums; Pinehurst, $4.7 million.
The funds remain attached to each school, acting as a reserve for budget shortages. Between all three schools, the district is projecting a deficit of $1.08 million, but it has $2.1 million set aside to cover this hole — without applying bond premium funds.
MCS isn’t using the bond premiums because it doesn’t officially have “access” to the money. It belongs to the Board of Commissioners. County Manager Wayne Vest says those funds, in a separate savings account, “can be allocated for any project that fits the bond language that was on the ballot.”
That language permits construction of the three new schools AND “improving, expanding and renovating other public school facilities” — provided the Board of Education asks.
There are some who say these extra funds should go toward paying construction debt. Given the low cost of borrowing today, that seems a waste of a real opportunity. And there is plenty of opportunity.
... So Don’t Blow It
Two weeks ago, the Board of Education spent two hours wringing its hands over the district’s 37-item list of most urgent improvements. It includes virtually all schools and represents $8.4 million in projected costs. The items range from a new pump station at New Century Middle to a new track at North Moore and Pinecrest high schools.
The Pinecrest track has galvanized a lot of support from southern Moore — but not from Bob Levy, David Hensley and Philip Holmes, the three school board members whose districts all have students who flow into Pinecrest.
Holmes, who represents Aberdeen area schools, was aggrieved over the prospects of giving money to Pinecrest.
“It seems to me like every time we sell a school, we decide to buy something new and shiny,” said Holmes. “I just wonder why everything new and shiny goes to Pinecrest.”
Mr. Holmes, Moore County just spent $13 million renovating and expanding North Moore High School. The $1.3 million track repair for Pinecrest — where one in every six students attends — is the school’s sole project on the current priority list.
Regardless, the scramble for money is not as desperate as the Board of Education thinks. Presuming the $8.5 million remaining in bond premiums is not needed for their respective construction budgets, some or all of that money can be deployed to accomplish virtually all 37 items on this list.
Commissioners have already demonstrated the wisdom of this strategy. All they need to do is be asked — provided the Board of Education can agree to it.