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Swain County schools apply for $7 million grant

Swain County schools apply for $7 million grant

Swain County Schools will apply for a multi-million dollar grant through the new Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund that can be used for school construction.

The school system will be requesting $7 million to complete two phases of construction work at Swain High School. Phase one would include adding STEM classrooms, a guidance suite, entrance, lobby, administrative offices and a new kitchen and dining area in the cafeteria for a total of $5.47 million. The second phase would include $3.9 million for a new addition to the gymnasium, lobby and restrooms.   

The North Carolina General Assembly passed Senate Bill 582 this year, which allocates more than $100 million over the next two years to assist low-wealth counties with their critical public school building capital needs. The General Assembly recently clarified that the funds could only be used for new school construction and not renovations.

“We had previously submitted our application Monday, Oct. 10, which included renovations in addition to the new construction and additions,” said Toby Burrell, a spokesperson for the school system. “We later received the news release that the technical correction had been passed. We are currently in the process of updating our application to remove the costs of renovations and preparing to resubmit.”

For this year and next year, funding will be available only to counties that fall into the Tier 1 category. In later years, Tier 2 counties will also be eligible. Swain has been designated a Tier 1 county consecutively for the last five years while surrounding counties have bounced around between Tier 1, 2 and 3.

The N.C. Department of Commerce annually ranks the state’s 100 counties based on economic well-being and assigns each a tier designation. The 40 most distressed counties are designated as Tier 1, the next 40 as Tier 2 and the 20 least distressed as Tier 3. This Tier system is incorporated into various state programs to encourage economic activity in the less prosperous areas of the state.

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The funds are capped at $15 million per project in Tier 1 counties, and the law requires a local match of $1 for every $3 in grant funds, which means Swain County would have to kick in about $2.4 million if the school system receives the grant. The fund will be provided by revenue from the state lottery. The fund totals $30 million this fiscal year and $75 million in fiscal year 2018-19.

Based on the criteria established, it appears Swain County Schools is well positioned to receive the grant. To qualify, counties have to show a greater need and low ability to generate sales and/or property tax revenue, have a high debt-to-tax revenue ratio and the project must address critical deficiencies in adequately serving the current and future student population.

Swain has a low tax base due to the amount of federally-owned property in the county and is struggling to keep up with infrastructure with a growing student population and aging schools.

However, if Swain receives the grant, one of the stipulations would keep the county from collecting any other lottery funds for the next five years. For Swain County, that would be a loss of about $650,000.

The school district anticipates hearing a response on the grant award by Nov. 1.

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