Harnett Commissioners Balk On School Grant

Harnett County commissioners didn’t display the same type of enthusiasm over a state grant as the local board of education did.

The Harnett County Schools Board of Education last week agreed to pursue a Needs-based Public School Capital Fund grant that could net the system as much as $10 million if approved. One key caveat, however, required the county to forfeit lottery funds for the next five years should the grant get accepted. Board of Education members estimated the possible $10 million outweighed the approximately $6 million in lottery funds and warranted moving forward with the application process.

The education board needed the commissioners’ approval to pursue the grant and County Manager Paula Stewart on Tuesday offered her office’s findings about its actual worth.

The numbers didn’t add up, according to Stewart, especially when the county could receive more than $7 million in lottery money over the next five years.

“Basically, the forfeiting the lottery proceeds is a concern of ours,” Stewart said. “It just comes down to the math in our opinion. You think $10 million, all of us would perk up to hear we might get that much money for a new school. But when you see the reality of it, and you start running the numbers, it’s not always a positive thing to get some of these grants. It’s a lot of red tape for any of these grant funds.”

Any money from the grant would fund the ongoing Northwest Harnett Elementary School project. For the school to be eligible for the funding, an additional program needed to be implemented that Stewart said raised the overall cost of the project by $3 million. When subtracted from the potential $10 million maximum amount of the grant, the net gain hovered around what Stewart estimated the lottery funds would be with no annual increase factored in.

“The cost of the elementary school went from around $38 million to $41 million,” said Stewart. “So a $3 million increase to build the school so that it would meet the qualifications to be part of the needs-based application. With lottery funds, it’s hard to tell if they’re going to go up, but historically they’ve gone up, they don’t go down. So it could be more than $7.2 million that we could get in the next five years.”

HCS Board of Education Chairman Eddie Jaggers last week favored applying for the grant despite objections from Superintendent Aaron Fleming. HCS projected lottery funds over the next five years at approximately $6 million, but the cost increase at the school associated with the grant wasn’t taken into account in the net gain.

New commissioner W. Brooks Matthews, who also serves as assistant superintendent of auxillary services at Harnett County Schools, said the grant looked good to the board of education early on, but the red tape dampened the excitement.

“What they were requiring with the grant is that we put some sort of program at the school that it would not have,” Matthews said. “That’s where the $3 million comes in, to put in that extra program. It might not run quite that much, but still when you’re talking about $7.2 million in lottery funds, and we’re only going to net lets say $7 million out of it, plus the potential lottery funds may increase, I don’t see any advantage there.”

Stewart also mentioned the disruption forfeiting lottery dollars would do to the county’s capital budget, which HCS relies on annually to fund projects.

“We’ve had this discussion with [HCS] and I think my conversation was that the superintendent thinks we should not go for the grant,” said Stewart. “But I’m not sure the board of education is feeling that same way. They’re going to get the money either way, but it’s where the money is allocated is the big ‘gotcha.’ It’s kind of like you’re taking money from one thing and putting it somewhere else. We’re having to borrow more money because now the school is $41 million.”

Both boards planned to vote on the grant at their respective Monday meetings.

-Dunn Daily Record