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Higher education leaders push for Connect N.C. bond

fr ncbondWith $120 million at stake, higher education leaders in Western North Carolina have taken every opportunity in the last month to educate people about the Connect N.C. Bond proposal.

North Carolina residents will be asked to vote yay or nay on a $2 billion infrastructure bond package when they go to vote in the March 15 primary election. If approved, community colleges and state universities will receive large chunks of funding to complete new construction and renovation projects on campus. 

Specifically, Western Carolina University would receive $110 million to construct a new science building, Haywood Community College would get $2.83 million for renovation projects and Southwestern Community College stands to gain $7.17 million for renovation and/or new construction projects. 

HCC President Barbara Parker, SCC President Don Tomas and WCU Chancellor David Belcher have been presenting a united front in spreading the word about the bond. They’ve visited chambers of commerce, Rotary Clubs, Kiwanis Clubs, county commissioners meetings and other civic organizations in their coverage areas to spread the word about what the bond will do for their respective institutions.  

“This has definitely been a boots-on-the- ground type of campaign, and anything we can do to collaborate we’ve been trying to do that,” Tomas said. 

 

Constituent concerns

Overall, they said the response has been encouraging. 

 “When people hear about it and have an opportunity to ask questions about it, we’re getting very positive feedback,” Belcher said. 

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory was the one to propose the bond, but it has since garnered support from legislators on both sides of the aisle. Even with bipartisan support, there have been a few criticisms of the bond — some people we’re disappointed when funding for transportation projects was taken out of the bond, while others don’t think the state needs to increase its debt load.

Tomas said the number one question they have been asked is why the bond doesn’t include any funding for K-12 education projects. With so much debate lately over public education funding, it’s a reasonable question, but that doesn’t mean the college presidents have a definitive answer to it. 

“My response is we’re all in this together from an education perspective — what helps us will help our future students coming from K-12 to have nice facilities to improve their educational goals,” Tomas said. “And most of our students at SCC become WCU students.”

Some people are just untrusting of the government. Even though the state says it’s paying off debt so quickly that the $2 billion bond won’t impact its credit rating or increase taxes, some people aren’t buying it. 

Parker said some people in Haywood County have asked her why other community colleges — including SCC — are slated to receive more money than HCC. She has explained that HCC has a much smaller coverage area than SCC. While HCC serves mostly Haywood County with one campus, SCC has campuses in Jackson, Macon and Swain counties. 

“We’re a one-county service area,” she said. “The other thing is we learned over 50 percent of the (funding) formula was based on our 2015 commerce tier designation. Haywood County was a tier 3 in 2015 and it hurt us. We’re back to a tier 2 this year.”

Each year the N.C. Department of Commerce gives every county a tier ranking of 1, 2 or 3, with tier 1 being the least prosperous and tier 3 being the most prosperous. That ranking determines which counties will be given first dibs on state grant money. Jackson, Macon and Swain were all designated as a tier 1 county in 2015. 

Belcher said his biggest concern with the bond issue is awareness. It’s been difficult to get good coverage for the bond when everyone is so wrapped up in the presidential primary candidate campaigns. On the other hand, he hopes all the presidential primary excitement will get more people to the polls.  

 

Where the money will go

The top priority in education right now is preparing students for careers in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math. WCU’s project to construct a new state-of-the-art science building would meet that current need.  

The current science building is no longer suited to accommodate the university’s needs. It was constructed 40 years ago when WCU had 15 nursing students and no engineering or technology programs. Today, WCU has about 400 undergrad nursing students and about 600 students in other science and technology programs. 

“If we stop growing we can’t produce any more nurses or engineers, and we need more of those in the west,” Belcher said. 

The $110 million price tag may seem high to some, but science technologies are expensive and the construction process will be more complex than usual because of the building’s location on campus. The new building will have to be built in the same exact location as the current one, which means WCU will have to construct half of the new building, move everyone in that side before tearing down and rebuilding the other half.

The community colleges haven’t yet decided on exactly what projects their money would go toward. SCC recently completed master plans for its three campuses and has a list of possible projects that need to be funded. The Swain campus — located in the old Almond School building — needs more than $2 million in upgrades to maintain current SCC operations. As far as new construction, SCC needs a new health science building, maintenance building, library and public safety training building. Most of these structures are more than 30 years old and need to be replaced. 

The bond proposal has a caveat for community colleges in tier 1 communities wanting to spend their funding on new construction projects. Tomas said the county would have to match a quarter of the project cost.

Parker said HCC’s board of trustees has voted on completing renovation projects but hasn’t identified which buildings will receive the money. She said there is a good possibility the money will go toward upgrading the 36-year-old building that houses biology and chemistry classes. 

 

Win-win for WNC

The western portion of the state often feels shorted when it comes to getting state funding, but the Connect N.C. bond would send more than $220 million of the $2 billion to projects in the western region, not only for education but for improvements to rural water and sewer systems, state parks and public safety programs.  

“Our region and Haywood County has a lot to gain by the passage of the bond,” Parker said. 

Tomas agreed that the bond is not just about funding for higher education — it’s about infrastructure needed to have an educated workforce, which is turn attracts new industries to the area. He said it was important to note that North Carolina’s population has grown by 2 million people since the 2000 census, making North Carolina the ninth most populated state in the nation.

“That’s like moving the entire state of Nebraska to North Carolina,” Tomas said. “This is an infrastructure bond to meet the growing needs of the state.”

Belcher said WCU would continue to work with the community colleges to provide the programs students need. For example, HCC is going to begin offering an associate’s degree in engineering so students can easily transfer to WCU’s four-year program.

 

 

Breakdown of funds 

  • National Guard and Public safety — $78.5 million (4 percent)
  • Parks and zoos — $100 million (5 percent) 
  • Agriculture — $179 million (9 percent)
  • Water/sewer and local parks — $312.5 million (16 percent)
  • Community colleges — $350 million (17 percent)
  • UNC System — $980 million (49 percent)

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