Harnett School Board Seeks Grant In Lieu Of Lottery Money

The Harnett County Schools Board of Education moved forward with a grant application that comes with strings attached.

Board members elected to chase a Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund grant that potentially could be worth as much as $10 million. One string attached to the grant requires giving up lottery funds for five years. Another called for the intended school project to meet an environmental component that raised construction costs and lowers the overall net gain of the grant.

Superintendent Aaron Fleming

“For us it could be $6, $7 million when it’s all said and done if we continue to increase our lottery money,” HCS Superintendent Aaron Fleming said. “If we get $10 million, you say that’s about a $3-$4 million to the good, but the issue is you have to do something different than what was originally planned for that school.”

The new Northwest Harnett Elementary School project became an obvious choice for the funding, but Fleming said adding the environmental component could inflate overall costs by as much as $3 million. When subtracted from the potential $10 million grant, the overall net comes in at approximately $7 million, which is in the ballpark of the estimated lottery dollars over the next five years.

“For Northwest Harnett, we looked at it and realized the difference would be in the instructional program,” said Fleming. “We would add an environmental or natural resource elementary curriculum to the school that’s got two ponds on it. We would finish out the ponds and do some type of outdoor lab, outdoor classroom which added $2 or $3 million to the price of the school.”

HCS needs approval from the Harnett County Board of Commissioners to pursue the grant and that may be a tough sell. County Manager Paula Stewart briefed commissioners earlier this month on the grant and the response came back lukewarm at best. Commissioner W. Brooks Matthews, who also serves as HCS deputy superintendent, expressed his skepticism about forgoing lottery money.

“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 lottery funds may increase, I don’t see any advantage there,” Matthews said.

Stewart told commissioners accepting the grant resembled more of a borrow from Peter to pay Paul-type scenario.

“It’s kind of like you’re taking money from one thing and putting it somewhere else,” Stewart said. “We’re having to borrow money because now the school is $41 million [compared to $38 million].”

HCS relies on the county commissioners for capital funding, and Fleming acknowledged the mathematical impact of the grant is far from a slam dunk.

“I know the county commissioners have had some questions about if they would really want us to move forward with this because it does cut into lottery dollars, which obviously builds and renovates schools, pays off debt service as well as provides them with some flexibility in giving us additional capital dollars,” said Fleming. “I can understand the sentiment there and worried about the recurring lottery dollars.”

Board member Bill Morris seemed to support Stewart’s position that the grant may be a wash, even if HCS received the full $10 million.

“[Commissioners] have been using these [lottery] dollars to retire debt service,” Morris said. “If they’re going to say you take the $10 million grant and we’re not going to get the lottery dollars, we have got to cut your money back $1.2 million a year to cover the debt service we’ve been retiring we counted on, we may be swapping dollar for dollar here.”

Chairman Eddie Jaggers made the motion to proceed with the application process, but specified that the board only would consider accepting the money should it receive the full $10 million. The application is due next month.

-Dunn Daily Record