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Swain schools need expensive upgrades

Mark Sale, Swain County Schools’ Superintendent. Mark Sale, Swain County Schools’ Superintendent.

Swain County Schools are looking at a long list of capital improvement needs to keep students safe and plan for future growth, but it won’t be possible without a more steady revenue stream to support such projects. 

Swain County Schools’ new Superintendent Mark Sale understands the community’s sentiment against raising taxes, but he’s been working hard to make the public understand why increasing the county’s sales tax by a quarter of a cent is the best way to fund capital needs. The sales tax would not apply to groceries, prescription medications and gasoline purchases. 

“I one hundred percent understand what you’re saying, but one of the great opportunities with the is quarter cent sales tax referendum is that a large portion of the burden will be shared with people who don’t live in Swain County,” he said. “The tourism industry will help support this — I’d say 75 percent of it will be supported by tourism.”

A referendum to increase Swain’s sales tax from 6.75 percent to 7 percent will appear on the Nov. 6 election ballot. While the wording on the ballot doesn’t specify that the additional revenue from the increase will go to Swain County Schools, Sale said the county commissioners have committed to earmarking the money for capital improvements for the schools through a unanimously approved resolution. 

“The wording on the ballot is controlled by the state election board. Rep. Mike Clampitt stepped up for us — for the last couple years he’s really tried to help our school system — and he tried to get the wording changed but he was told that couldn’t happen,” Sale said. “Know that we have a solid statement from county commissioners to support this and we will continue to seek resolution from commissioners in the future to support this — that it will go toward capital education needs.”

If approved, the additional quarter cent could bring in an estimated $300,000 a year to put toward the school system’s capital needs. Sale said it would also give the school system a revenue stream that doesn’t come with strings attached, which is normally the case when Swain County receives funding from the state or the federal government. 

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“This is important to us because it gives us a consistent revenue stream that only has a few stipulations attached to it — it stipulates it will be used for capital needs,” he said. “The reason that is so important to us is because all the money that comes to us has a string attached to it — state funding has to be used in prescribed manner, when the federal government allots money most of the time it comes with some type of requirement.”

Another element of concern, Sale said, is that the school system continues to be burdened by unfunded mandates from the state legislature. 

“They want us to reduces class sizes in K-3 but there’s no money to hire additional staff so we have to absorb that,” he said. “So we end up kicking up class size in other places or use a less encumbered funding stream to supplement.”

Because so much of Swain County is occupied by federally owned land that the county can’t tax to help support the school system, the county receives federal impact aid, but again, Sale said that money is used to pay for things like maintenance staff salaries, activity bus transportation and other expenses not covered by state funding. The county receives some funding each year from the N.C. Education Lottery fund that it uses toward paying off the debt incurred from previous school improvement projects at the two elementary schools.

Lastly, the school system receives funding from the county each year — about $160,000 for capital needs and about $800,000 for general expenditures. However, $160,000 a year isn’t much to undertake a major capital project like the one needed at the high school. 

“We have to renovate space at the high school for STEM science rooms and we need to shift our point of entrance for the public and buses to a different place on campus to secure the main building with a buzz-in system,” Sale said. 

The good news is Swain County Schools just received a $4.7 million critical needs capital construction grant from the state to put toward the capital project. However, to make that project possible, first the school system is going to need to complete a road construction project at the high school to reroute traffic flow. The state grant cannot be used for road construction, which is why the school system is relying on the additional sales tax revenue stream to cover some of that cost. 

“Rep. Clampitt has also helped find us $35,000 to begin the road construction project that we must complete around the high school to fully renovate it like we want to do to create a safe campus,” Sale said. “DOT is working with us some on this as well — they hope to shift us to a funding source that will move more quickly — otherwise we’re five to 10 years out for traditional routes.”

With the state grant, Swain County will have to provide $1 for every $3 provided by the state. The funds also come with a stipulation that the county will not collect any N.C. Education Lottery funds for capital improvements for the next five years. 

While the high school project is the No. 1 priority of the school system, the school board has identified a total of $20 million in capital improvement needs. The pre-K modulars being used down the hill from the middle school have reached their 15-year life expectancy and traffic flow in that area is also a major concern. 

“Traffic flow at pre-K can be as difficult as flow at the high school and there’s no solution for building additional roads — at some point we’ll need to move the pre-K buildings, but we can’t move the buildings so we’ll have to build new ones,” he said. 

Additionally, the bus garage was built in the 1930s and needs to be replaced and $500,000 is needed to redesign the middle school.

Sale said people have asked whether the school system will receive any of the North Shore settlement funds recently secured by the county and the answer is it’s too soon to tell. While the commissioners are set to receive at least $1 million in interest from the $56 million principal sitting in an account in Raleigh, no funding commitments have been made. 

“There’s been no discussion or public comment about putting settlement money toward the schools. Commissioners are working on a plan about how to use that money,” he said. “As superintendent, I’m going to be knocking on their door asking, ‘What about us?’ I know they have a lot of responsibilities, but I believe we’re a very important one.”

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