June 16, 1999

RALEIGH — North Carolina school districts and local officials should pursue new ways to build, renovate, and operate public schools to avoid tax increases, say the authors of a new briefing paper on school construction published by the N.C. Alliance for Smart Schools.

Doug Haynes, director of the Smart Schools Alliance, and John Locke Foundation President John Hood co-wrote the paper, which examines the apparent conflict between accommodating student enrollment growth and avoiding local tax increases.

The paper, entitled “There Are Better Ways,” calls for the construction of “smaller, safer, effective and efficient public schools” and points to examples in Florida, Arizona, California, Scotland, Nova Scotia, and North Carolina of creative solutions to capacity problems.

They include downsizing and revising space and facility guidelines; inviting private participation in the design, construction, ownership, and management of schools; using modular construction and other technological innovations; and building “satellite” schools in workplaces and “virtual” schools on the Internet.

A key component of the authors’ approach is borrowed from Florida, where public officials set per-student capped amounts for school construction and then reward districts and contractors who bring costs down below the cap.

“Right now, most counties and school systems operate within incentives that encourage larger, more expensive school buildings,” Haynes said. “The Florida approach shows how public officials can get control of their construction costs and reward efficiency and creativity.”

The paper also suggests that school systems free up operating money for continuing and preventive maintenance by contracting out support services and other functions to private companies or county government. From the county government perspective, Haynes and Hood recommend setting firm priorities with existing revenue growth, eliminating unnecessary or wasteful spending, and seeking opportunities for privatization and competition to reduce the cost of county services and make more funds available for schools.

The paper contains a model for implementing new construction ideas in Wake County, where voters earlier this month defeated a $650 million bond issue that would have necessitated a nearly 40 percent hike in property tax rates. The authors present two options for building exactly the same number of new classroom spaces over the next five years without raising taxes. The two options would require far smaller bond issues and the dedication of most county revenue growth to school capital needs.

“Many public officials seem to think that the only solution to the school overcrowding problem in growing communities is new taxes,” Haynes said. “They need to go back to the drawing board to create learning opportunities for all North Carolina children without imposing higher burdens on taxpayers or losing sight of the ultimate goal: a high-quality education.”

Additional information about the Smart Schools paper and the issues it addressed can be obtained from the N.C. Alliance for Smart Schools, 200 W. Morgan Street, Suite 200, Raleigh, NC 27601, (919) 828-3876. Foundation web site at www.johnlocke.org.