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Wednesday, 20 January 2016 15:46

Bond could give higher education an influx of funds

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fr mccroryvisitDespite the large number of politicians that will be on the ballot March 15, Western Carolina University in Cullowhee probably has the most to gain and the most to lose during the primary election.

If voters pass the Connect NC bond proposal on the ballot, WCU will receive $110 million to build a brand new state-of-the-art natural science facility. If the bond referendum fails to garner a majority of the votes, WCU Chancellor David Belcher said the university would not be able to keep up with the growth of popular majors like nursing and engineering. 

“We’re strapped for space and we won’t grow if we don’t get more space and, frankly, space that’s much better,” Belcher said. “This funding is essential — it’s a very large dollar project and we don’t have any other resources to get it done.”

The current science building was constructed 40 years ago when the university 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. 

The building is full every day of the week, yet the aging science building can’t accommodate enough students and offer the newest technologies. The floors shake, the air conditioning units cause vibrations when they kick on, and there are problems with mold, plumbing and not enough storage space. The shaking and vibrating renders the sensitive scientific equipment used in the labs useless. Measurements aren’t reliable under those conditions.

With more than 10,000 students now at WCU — and a majority of them required to take some kind of science course — the building is a major building block of the university. Belcher said WCU couldn’t adequately prepare these students to compete globally in these science areas.  With a nationwide push toward encouraging students to pursue careers in STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — having the new building is essential for the university. 

“Western really starts from the perspective that we exist to serve this region of the state,” Belcher said. “And we work hard to meet the workforce needs in this area.”

The WCU natural science building project is the single largest allocation in the $2 billion bond proposal, which would fund a variety of infrastructure projects across the state. About half of the bond money — $980 million — would fund projects at state universities while another $350 million would be funneled to community colleges.

Belcher will spend the next month or so traveling the region to talk to civic groups about the benefits of the bond proposal. WCU has also set up a page on its website to explain the bond proposal and the need for a new science building. Belcher said he could feel good about advocating for the referendum because the bond would not cause an increase in taxes and won’t significantly increase the state’s debt service in the long term. 

“We have historically low interest rates right now and the state has been paying off old debt fairly quickly — the last bonds passed in 2000 are now being retired so there will be no additional tax based debt service,” he said. “From a financial point of view it’s a perfect moment to make this initiative happen.”

If the bond doesn’t pass, Belcher said WCU doesn’t have any other financial resources available to complete a project of this magnitude. Since the last state bond was issued in 2000, the population of North Carolina increased by two million people. That much growth is usually followed by new and expanded infrastructure, but those types of projects have been postponed since the economy took a nosedive in 2008. 

“Like the rest of the country, North Carolina went through the recession and revenue has dried up,” Belcher said. “The economy is recovering, but money isn’t flowing yet like it used to yet our infrastructure demands it.”

Belcher feels optimistic about the bond passing since it’s garnered bipartisan support in the General Assembly and the funds are fairly distributed throughout the state for a number of important projects.  

“But it’s always hard to say — some people are worried about it being on the primary ballot — that it might have some impact on how people vote, but North Carolina has a long history of both parties supporting of education,” he said.

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