Start to the new school year sends a message about North Carolina’s future

Published September 14, 2023

By Rob Schofield

Blistering summers that go on and on and the discomfort they cause for humans are far from the only (or worst) negative impacts of the global climate emergency.

Similarly, when it comes to public education in North Carolina, bringing school facilities up to snuff is just one item on a to-do list that’s as long as your arm.

That said, it’s been impossible not to be struck by the illustrative way these two truck-size issues have converged across the state in recent days, and the alarm that the convergence ought to be signaling.

As anyone who pays even a smattering of attention to the news is aware, scores of schools have been struggling since the start of the traditional school calendar in late August to stay operational in the infernal late summer weather.

In county after county, news reports have chronicled the stories of schools forced to send kids home early because of nonfunctioning HVAC systems. Such reports have been an almost daily occurrence in one of the state’s wealthiest districts –Wake — where dozens of schools and thousands of children have been adversely affected. Some forced closures have even occurred on relatively benign weather days.

Thousands of children have been adversely affected. Photo: Getty Images


The HVAC-driven closures come on the heels of another even more worrisome and related issue that has reared its head recently (and that seems to emerge somewhere in North Carolina every year around this time): mold.

As WFMY television reported on Sept. 10, more than 2,000 workers have been called on to clean 30 of Alamance-Burlington’s 37 schools, since mold was found in an elementary school in late July.

There’s no single cause for HVAC and mold problems. Sometimes roofs and windows leak and moisture goes where it’s not supposed to be. Sometimes systems get overused or misused or simply wear out. Repair and upkeep delays driven by supply chain issues that arose during the pandemic also remain an issue in many places.

There are, however, two overarching and undeniable truths about these problems that it will be folly to ignore.

First is that things are not going to get easier anytime soon. As the climate continues to warm, demands and strains on air conditioning systems will continue to increase. Meanwhile, increasingly intense weather – more severe storms and wild temperature fluctuations, heavier downpours, increased flooding – will cause more wear and tear on those systems and the buildings they serve.

And second is the closely related fact that costs – for construction, equipment, repairs, insurance and staffing – are also sure to continue to rise. Absent extremely shortsighted decisions to simply do nothing, or to rely on cheap, disposable structures of the kind that already populate too many school parking lots in many parts of the state, significant new investments are inevitable.

As an aside, the need to further “harden” schools against the ongoing national gun violence epidemic will be yet another cost driver.

Thankfully, however, there are important potential solutions (and even silver linings) to this situation.

To begin with, we have good cost data on capital/facility needs for the state’s roughly 2,600 schools. The number stands at almost $12.8 billion. Needs are particularly high in areas hit hard by past hurricanes.

There’s no doubt the state should have acted a few years ago when the estimate of statewide needs stood at $8 billion and interest rates were at record low levels that would have made a large bond issue even more affordable. But North Carolina still has all the money it needs – in the form of reserves and in potential tax revenue and bonding capacity – to get the job done.

What’s more, if state leaders were courageous enough to embark upon such an effort, they could achieve several extremely important objectives at once.

First would be the dramatic improvement of life for thousands of students and educators. Indeed, it’s a basic assumption of the court-ordered West Ed report that analyzed the state’s schools and their needs as part of the Leandro funding equity lawsuit that facility/capital needs must be met.

Second, by investing up front so that schools are upgraded and more resilient, the state will avoid even bigger expenses down the line (like the clean-up in Alamance County) as climate extremes take their toll.

And last but far from least, is the benefit that would flow to the entire community. Schools are far from the only essential component of public infrastructure that will require strengthening to cope with the warmer and stormier future that lies ahead, but they are among the most important. Indeed, healthy schools frequently serve as both hubs around which healthy communities revolve and models for other infrastructure upgrades.

In short, if North Carolina leaders embrace this challenge, there’s a chance that the state’s schools will cope and even thrive in the decades to come. If instead, however, they bury their heads in the sand and stick to business as usual, the start of the 2023-’24 school year promises to be a mere taste of some very difficult days that lie ahead.