RALEIGH — The CEO of an architecture firm proposing will spend the rest of his weekend crunching numbers after a heavily-revised version Senate Bill 554 passed through the Senate’s education and finance committees Friday to see if it can be a road to new schools through consolidation.
The newest version of the bill no longer allows school systems to put state money toward the lease-purchase contract, like one being proposed for Robeson County, but would put money from the education lottery toward such agreements.
“It’s not a bad outcome, I think the plan is still workable,” said Robbie Ferris, CEO of sfL+a Architects. “There are probably some changes we will have to make in it. I’m actually pretty encouraged by what happened.”
Ferris’ firm presented Robeson County leadership with a plan in April that would calls for 30 schools to be closed and 14 new ones to be built. His financial plan to pay for the new schools included per student funding and money that would be saved by reducing staff, from the attrition of staff, both of which are given by the state.
Ferris is hopeful that he and his staff can crunch the numbers and still bring new schools to Robeson County without the state money.
“It’s real money,” he said. “It’s a couple of million dollars … That’s something, but it’s certainly not a deal breaker.”
The bill appeared all but dead on Thursday, but surged ahead after being revised.
During the Senate’s Finance Committee meeting Friday, Edgar Starnes, a representative from the Office of State Treasurer, said his office would support the revised bill because “state funds are not obligated to pay these operating leases.” The Office of the State Treasurer previously expressed opposition to Senate Bill 554 as well as Ferris’ plan, saying the bill would have allowed classroom money to go to private companies.
The Treasurer’s Office had also voiced concerns that the operating lease authorized by Senate Bill 554 would significantly increase Robeson County’s debt, which Starnes reiterated in committee on Friday. Sen. Jerry Tillman, one of the bill’s primary sponsors, said Starnes didn’t have to worry about that thanks to his “great negotiating.”
The dig was in reference to the Office of the State Treasurer’s unwillingness to meet with Ferris to discuss the bill. Janet Cowell, N.C. treasurer, said she didn’t think it was appropriate for her office to negotiate with someone who would “financially benefit” from the passing of the bill.
In the same statement, Cowell announced that her office would be formulating an alternate plan that could help bring new schools to poor and rural counties. In light of the recent revisions to Senate Bill 554, that plan is on hold, according to Brad Young, press secretary for the Office of the State Treasurer.
“Many of the Treasurer’s primary concerns regarding Senate Bill 554 have been addressed in the most recent version of the bill,” Young said in a statement. “The department is comfortable with the legislation in its current form and will continue to monitor the bill through the final legislative action. Funding for education continues to be our most pressing fiscal issue today and the Department of State Treasurer will continue to work with Robeson County to help meet its needs.”
The newest form of Senate Bill 554 would:
— Give the Local Government Commission authority to approve or disapprove any project that utilizes Senate Bill 554.
— Prohibit a private company from having the first claim on tax dollars.
— Require a local Board of Education to adopt a resolution and publish an intent to enter into a capital lease at least 10 days in advance of the meeting at which action is contemplated. Local county commissioners would then receive that resolution and affirm or reject it within 45 days after receiving it.
— Allow a school system to lease a building from a third party. Other laws specify that school systems must own their own buildings, but a provision in the newest form of the bill negates that.
— Add lottery money as an acceptable way to pay for a capital lease.
— Require a private developer to seek competitive bids and minority business participation in connection with all construction work.
— Require a private developer to provide an irrevocable letter of credit for the benefit of laborers in the amount of no less than 5 percent of the total cost of improvements in the capital lease.
— Prohibit a capital lease from dictating what school a student must attend.
Senate Bill 554 must now pass in the Senate and House before being signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory.
Gabrielle Isaac can be reached at 910-816-1989 or on Twitter @news_gabbie.