04/11/05 — Local officials unsure lottery answer for school needs

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Local officials unsure lottery answer for school needs

By News-Argus Staff
Published in News on April 11, 2005 1:49 PM

Wayne County schools might need money for buildings and educational programs, but school board members and county commissioners are unsure if a state lottery is the answer.

"Is it definitely going to go for education?" asked County Commissioner Atlas Price. "How much in classroom funds, or improvements in programs would it bring?"

The lottery legislation approved by the House last week would dedicate profits to school construction, scholarships and other education initiatives.

The Senate must approve the bill before it becomes law.

Price said he knows additional funding for the schools is needed, but added supporting gambling to raise those funds is not a solution he would normally have considered.

"If the legislators do pass it, it better be well-defined where the money is going," he said.

Commissioners Efton Sager and Andy Anderson are both opposed to the lottery.

"You don't teach people to save money with a lottery," Sager said. He also said that if the bill passed, it could hurt educational efforts in the long-term.

"I'm afraid the state will divert the money for other projects, like they did with the highway trust fund," he said.

Funding for school facilities has been a topic of conversation between the commissioners and the school board for more than a year.

In April 2004, the school board presented an $82.5 million facilities plan to the county. Included in that plan were $2.5 million for a new multi-purpose room at Brogden Primary school; $400,000 for classroom and cafeteria renovations at Mount Olive Middle School; $2.3 million in renovations at Goldsboro High School; and $1.6 million for air conditioning gymnasiums at eight middle schools.

New school construction projects included $12 million for a new middle school and $8 million for a new elementary school to relieve overcrowding at Eastern Wayne and Norwayne middle schools and at Northeast, Northwest, and Tommy's Road elementary schools, respectively; and $18 million each for work at Grantham and Mount Olive high schools.

County commissioners have told the school board that the county can't afford to fund these building projects, even long-term, without a tax increase, a bond referendum, or both.

The commissioners asked the school system for more detail and background information on the plan, since the county will have to make the decision on raising taxes.

In December, County Manager Lee Smith offered the school board the use of the Davenport Group to help consolidate that information. The commissioners hired the Davenport Group last year by the commissioners to look at the county's building needs and financial condition.

The school board didn't take the county up on its offer, but did decide it needed to make some revisions on its construction study.

Those revisions, and the consolidated facilities plan, will be discussed later this month during a budget retreat between both boards.

Commissioner Bud Gray said he is opposed to the lottery, but if it could save "hard-working taxpayers" an increase in their tax bill, he would consider supporting it.

"But I would have to know for certain that it was going for education," Gray said.

Price said safeguards could be put in place so the state couldn't take the money away from education.

Commissioner Chairman J.D. Evans said he is waiting to see what the final lottery bill will include.

"I only support it if it goes entirely for education," he said.

Commissioner John Bell said he had no problem with a lottery, but he wanted the money spent on schools and other clearly defined important needs.

Commissioner Jack Best declined to comment on the issue.

Board of Education members offered mixed opinions. They agreed money is desperately needed for construction and other projects, but were hesitant to designate lottery as the solution to the district's funding concerns.

Board Chairman Lehman Smith said he has not favored the idea of a lottery, expressing reservations that the money will go to education.

"I'm so afraid that what we get out of it will be cut to replace other money that we get," he said. "Unless it's earmarked in such a way that they can't use it for something else, then definitely I'd be opposed to it."

Board members Rick Pridgen and Thelma Smith said they are proponents of the lottery as a way to offset dwindling dollars.

"If people are going to play the lottery, they're going to play it," Pridgen said. But because the General Assembly has yet to define the parameters of a lottery program, he said he is reluctant to support the measure completely.

"If it's going to be used over and above what the current budgets are, I'm for it," he said. "If it's to replace money that we're already getting, then I'm not for it."

Mrs. Smith said there is evidence in other states that education is benefiting from lottery programs.

"People are going across state lines to buy tickets," she said. "We may as well keep our money here. If it's something I see is sincere about making education a priority, I certainly am for it."

Board member Pete Gurley responded to recent comments made by county commissioners that to provide funding for the school system, taxes might need to be increased.

"If it's a matter of the lottery or raising taxes, I certainly would not be opposed to the lottery," he said.

Board member John P. Grantham said the lottery is fraught with mixed messages.

"A lot of people that can't afford the lottery are paying for it," he said. "It sort of goes against the grain to say that it's OK because we're doing it for schools.

"I'm disappointed that we have to get our funding this way. I think it's kind of bad to send the message to our kids that legalized gambling is OK as long as it brings money for education ... and then try to teach character education in our schools."

Board member George Moye said he didn't have enough information to make a comment about the effects the lottery would have on the local school system, and board member Shirley Sims could not be reached for comment.