- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 13, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - The CEOs of North Carolina’s 115 local school districts said Tuesday that voters should decide whether they want to borrow for overdue construction needs.

The North Carolina School Superintendents’ Association unveiled its wish list for the General Assembly, which starts its new two-year session on Wednesday.

The group wants the first statewide bond referendum in nearly 20 years to help growing schools catch up on a building backlog estimated at billions of dollars. The superintendents also want expanded pre-kindergarten programs that prepare at-risk 4-year-olds for their academic careers, more money-management flexibility and an influx of funds to raise North Carolina from near the bottom in per-student spending to a middle ranking in the next decade.

The group included no details of its proposed borrowing plan, said Mark Edwards, the association’s president and the superintendent of Mooresville Graded Schools.

“Obviously this is a call for dialogue,” Edwards said. “We’re not saying today that we have the answers.”

Voters have approved borrowing for statewide school construction five times since 1949, most recently in 1996 for $1.8 billion, according to the North Carolina School Boards Association. The group also supports a new borrowing plan and restored Pre-K funding so the program can again enroll about 31,500 children as it had during Gov. Beverly Perdue’s administration. About 67,000 children are believed to be eligible.

A 2011 survey of public school infrastructure needs by the state Department of Public Instruction estimated a backlog of $8 billion.

Keeping up with the influx of students got more difficult as lawmakers diverted lottery profits during the recession. School construction initially received 40 percent of lottery proceeds when state-backed gaming was established in 2005, but that has shrunk to 17 percent today.

The lottery contributed $100 million to school construction in the year that ended in June, when the share given to buildings was 21 percent.

It’s not clear whether McCrory was already thinking about increased funding for pre-kindergarten or still favors a statewide bond referendum as he did during his unsuccessful 2008 campaign.

During a TV interview last month, McCrory was asked what it’s going to take to improve education outcomes.

“I think we transfer some of the money down,” the governor said. “It’s the Pre-K, first-, second- and third-grade. If you can’t read by fourth grade, the chances of recovering from that is very low and that’s where you ought to put your emphasis.”

McCrory’s staff wouldn’t say whether that means the governor will propose shifting public school spending to expand pre-kindergarten when he offers a proposed 2015 budget next month.

“We are still developing the proposed budget and expect to finalize those recommendations soon,” spokesman Josh Ellis wrote in an email.

Ellis also declined to update McCrory’s current stance on the idea of a statewide school construction bond, citing lack of details. McCrory said in 2008 that he supported borrowing for school buildings, but the time wasn’t right as the worst of the Great Recession’s toll became known.

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Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio .

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