EDUCATION: Loss of lottery funds puts Lee school board in a bind

Sep. 27, 2013 @ 05:19 PM

Lee County's two older middle schools have decades-old heating and air conditioning systems, which the district has been looking to replace for years. But due to changes in the state lottery, that may not happen any time soon.

The school district would typically have used funding from the North Carolina Education Lottery to pay for the HVAC work at East Lee Middle School and West Lee Middle School. But those funds have been slashed recently as the state legislature has broken the established formula for the lottery.

"The trend is they've cut back on some areas," said Jim Atkinson, Lee County School's assistant superintendent for auxiliary services. "The pie has been sliced a little differently."

Tammy Magill, the district's head financial officer, said the schools received $672,000 for capital work last year and will likely get about the same amount this year. By contrast, she said, the district received $2.1 million in the 2009-10 school year.

"You can see what kind of cut that is for construction projects," Magill said.

The Associated Press reported recently that county government lobbyists fought hard (yet unsuccessfully) against changes to the lottery formula, aiming to have capital funding restored to its intended levels: "Many counties borrowed money to build schools on the belief that a steady stream of lottery funds could be counted on to make bond payments," that article explained.

As in many counties, most of the Lee County government's construction debt is from school projects. Every elementary school is at or above capacity, so the Lee County Board of Education has been asking for a new elementary school for several years. The Lee County Board of Commissioners has, however, declined to build one. And although lottery cuts will delay HVAC work at East Lee, the school board voted several weeks ago to not even try asking the county for help.

Lee County Manager John Crumpton said that with reduced lottery capital funding now the law of the land, the county's denial of some school work appears to have been the right move. However, he said, certain projects do need to happen; the HVAC projects, both he and Atkinson said, are the school district's number-one priority — it's just unclear when or how.

"We didn't plug the hole with any local revenues," Crumpton said. "But at some point in the future, we'll have to address these issues. ... The bottom line is that when funding gets cut like that, it hurts both the county and the board of education."

Atkinson said that by replacing the old HVAC systems with newer models, the school district will save money on utility payments and increase comfort for those learning and working at the schools.

But the work at East Lee alone is estimated to cost $1.3 million, which is double what the district received for all of its capital needs last year — yet $800,000 less than what the district received in the last year the original formula was followed.

Atkinson said that without county assistance, the work will have to be staggered over several years, pushing back West Lee's renovation even further. But in voting against asking the county for help earlier this month, Lee Board of Education Chairman Lynn Smith said he would only ask the county for extra capital funds in emergency situations. The HVAC project, he said, didn't qualify.

Crumpton said he understands the bind school officials are in but thinks that once the economy improves, such troubles ought to go away.

"If the full funding had been there, they probably would've had both those HVAC projects done by now," he said. "... We need the economy to bounce back, for sure."