Complaints ranged from inedible water, termites, and even sewer flies. There was extreme crowding near a world-class golf resort and old air conditioners causing water leaks, mold, and breathing problems, but not enough cold air.
These weren’t conditions in tenement houses. There are reports from all over North Carolina in our children’s public schools.
As class teachers with almost 60 years of combined experience, we know that we have never faced so much headwinds as we do now. A pandemic is still burning through our communities. A nationwide shortage of teachers and school bus drivers is real. And precisely when we need them most urgently, our schools have too few nurses and social workers who are crucial to ensuring that all students get what they need.
Then there is the deplorable condition of too many of our school buildings. Earlier this month, the state’s Department of Public Education released an alarming report that received little attention. The price of renovating and rebuilding public schools in North Carolina rose 58 percent over the past five years to $ 12.8 billion.
The report was overshadowed by a nationwide shortage of school bus drivers and news of five schools in Guilford County that were temporarily closed because of air conditioning failures. Guilford is the third largest school district in the state, with schools averaging 55 years old. A thousand work orders from 40 schools flooded a understaffed maintenance team as classes began in the heat in late August.
Unfortunately, Guilford County isn’t an outlier. After the first month of teaching, the NC Association of Educators asked educators about the conditions of the school building. The answers were terrifying. The list reads like a slum lord’s log.
Near Pinehurst’s famous and sprawling golf resorts, a Moore County teacher said her local high school was dilapidated and extremely overcrowded. It was built for 1,800 students, but currently holds 2,300.
Near the University of North Carolina, an educator in Chapel Hill said the water in an elementary school was inedible and laden with heavy metals.
Down east in Wayne County, an educator said termite and bee infestations were driving teachers out of their high school classrooms.
On the South Carolina border, a Columbus County educator said her school was 90 years old, with mold on the ceiling and years of dirt on the toilet stalls.
In the mountains near the Georgia state line, the cafeteria ceiling is leaking at a high school in Macon County, where some buildings are 70 years old.
A teacher from Brunswick County, near Wilmington, said her school was over 80 years old, with rodents, sewer flies and even mousetraps in the library.
Meanwhile, Raleigh lawmakers are nearly three months late with a state budget in a General Assembly building where thermostats comfortably fluctuate between 70 and 72 degrees. Legislators are sitting on a $ 6.5 billion surplus. The recurring sticking point is the amount of corporate tax cuts, not the building of public schools. That speaks volumes about priorities.
The governor’s budget proposal would ask voters to approve a construction loan that would amount to $ 2.5 billion for public schools. North Carolina has not had a statewide school bond for 25 years, at a time when both Republicans and Democrats controlled the legislature. The leaders of the General Assembly now do not want a bond. Instead, they only want to invest a third of what the governor is proposing in school building and renovation.
But shouldn’t the “education lottery” help build schools? It’s a nagging question that the public asks a lot, and some politicians are now asking too. The lottery broke sales records during the pandemic and more lottery revenue is going to schools. However, state lawmakers have steadily cut the percentage of lottery revenue for schools and cut the percentage earmarked for school construction.
In the meantime, lawmakers are using lottery revenue to pay for school expenses, which the normal state budget covered. A small bipartisan group of lawmakers tabled a bill called “Restoring Lottery Funding for Schools” six months ago. The bill has not yet received a vote.
The money to upgrade schools could go to North Carolina if Congress can pass the Build Back Better infrastructure program, but our state now has the resources to renovate and rebuild our public schools.
One educator suggested that lawmakers move some household chats to a public school with mold and old air conditioners that can’t keep the classrooms as cool as lawmakers.
One educator in Cabarrus County responded to her survey with a humble request: “Please help NC schools that are either in need of replacement or renovation to keep our students safe.”
Kenya Donaldson has been an educator at Guilford County Schools for 23 years. John deVille spent 25 years teaching history at a Macon County high school.