Archived Opinion

Sewer flies, mice and mold; schools need help

Sewer flies, mice and mold; schools need help

By John deVille & Kenya Donaldson

Complaints ranged from undrinkable water, termites and even sewer flies. There was extreme overcrowding near a world-class golf resort. Old air conditioners trigger water leaks, mold and breathing concerns but not enough cold air. 

No, these were not conditions inside tenement apartments. They are reports from around North Carolina inside our children’s public schools.

As classroom teachers with almost 60 combined years of experience, we know we’ve never faced headwinds like now. A pandemic still burns through our communities. A statewide shortage of teachers and school bus drivers is real. And just when we need them most, our schools have too few nurses and social workers who are vital to making sure all students get what they need.

Then there’s the deplorable condition of too many of our school buildings. Earlier this month, the state’s Department of Public Instruction released an alarming report that got little attention. It said the price to renovate and rebuild North Carolina’s public schools jumped 58% over the last five years to $12.8 billion. The report was overshadowed by a statewide school bus driver shortage and news of five schools in Guilford County temporarily closing because of failing air conditioners. Guilford is the state’s third largest school district where schools average 55 years old. One thousand A/C work orders from 40 schools flooded an understaffed maintenance crew as classes started in the late August heat. 

Unfortunately, Guilford County is not an outlier. After the first month of classes, the NC Association of Educators surveyed educators on school building conditions. The responses were startling. The list reads like a slumlord’s rap sheet.

• Near the University of North Carolina, a Chapel Hill educator said an elementary school’s water is undrinkable and loaded with heavy metals.

• Down east in Wayne County, an educator said termite and bee infestations drove teachers from their high school classrooms.

• In Alleghany County, an educator says water from her elementary school’s flat roof leaks after a heavy rain. Ceiling tiles need constant replacement.

• Near the famous and spacious Pinehurst golf resort, a Moore County teacher said her local high school was deteriorating and extremely overcrowded. It was built for 1,800 students but currently holds 2,300.

• Closer to home, the cafeteria ceiling leaks in a Macon County high school where some buildings are 70 years old.

• A Brunswick County teacher near Wilmington said their school was over 80 years old with rodents, sewer flies and even mouse traps in the library.

Meanwhile in Raleigh, state lawmakers are almost three months late with a state budget in a General Assembly building where thermostats hover comfortably between 70 and 72 degrees. Lawmakers sit on a $6.5 billion surplus. The recurring sticking point is the size of corporate tax cuts, not public school construction. That speaks volumes about priorities.

The governor’s budget proposal would ask voters to approve a construction bond that would include $2.5 billion for public schools. North Carolina has not had a statewide school bond in 25 years, during a period when both Republicans and Democrats had controlled the legislature. Leaders of the General Assembly don’t want a bond now. Instead, they want to invest only a third of what the governor proposes for school construction and renovation.

But wasn’t the “Education Lottery” supposed to help build schools? It’s a nagging question the public often raises, and some politicians are now asking, too. The lottery broke sales records during the pandemic, and more lottery revenue is going to schools. But state lawmakers have steadily slashed the percentage of lottery revenue dedicated to schools, and they cut the percentage earmarked for school construction. Meantime, lawmakers are using lottery revenue to pay for school expenses that the normal state budget used to cover. A small bi-partisan group of lawmakers filed a bill six months ago titled “Restore Lottery Funding for Schools.” So far, the bill has not gotten a vote.

School modernization money could come to North Carolina if Congress can pass the Build Back Better infrastructure program, but our state has the funding to renovate and rebuild our public schools right now. One educator suggested lawmakers move some budget talks into a public school with mold and old air conditioners that can’t keep classrooms as cool as the legislative building. One educator in Cabarrus County answered her survey with a humble request: “Please help NC schools that need to be either replaced or renovated to make a place for our students to feel safe.” 

John deVille has spent 25 years as a high school history teacher in Macon County deVille is President of the Macon County Association of Educators. Kenya Donaldson is an educator of 23 years in Guilford County Schools. Donaldson is president of the Guilford County Association of Educators.

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