In less than a month, North Carolina residents will be voting on the $2 billion Connect N.C. bond referendum. Nearly half of the bond proceeds will go to the university system to build 13 new buildings (about one for every campus in the system) at a cost of close to $900 million.
The question all citizens should be asking is: “Do we really need these?”
That is a valid question, so in the 2015 budget, the legislature required the university system to tell us the answer so the voters can make an informed decision. Section 31.18 of the budget (Debt Affordability Study for the University of North Carolina) required the university system to report by Feb. 1 on the status of these projects including:
• Can the university system afford the debt service?
• Can they fill the newly created classroom seats?
• Can they justify the expenditure in relation to their existing classroom vacancy rate?
• And if not, what’s reason why the state legislature needs to supplement these expenditures with taxpayer money free to the university system?
If the voters are satisfied with the university system’s answer, the expenditure of taxpayer money may be justified. Fair enough, but if after examining this report, the voters are not satisfied or have still unanswered questions by the March 15 election date, the voters should reject the bond.
The problem is: As of Feb. 11, this report is nowhere to be found.
The university contact I talked to (Note: this was the official person I was told responsible for this report) stated that the report will not be done anytime soon and we can at best expect it sometime in April. That is at least two to three weeks beyond the March 15 vote on the referendum.
The university system is going to delay the report containing critical information needed by the voters to make an informed decision until after the election.
The voters deserve the right to examine this critical information. On the surface, this appears to be an attempt by the university system to keep the voters uninformed before the vote, ram through this bond and thumb their noses at the voters while disobeying the law and disrespecting the will of the people.
So I will tell you what I think based upon all available statistics, trends and just plain gut feeling. The university system cannot justify the expenditures, so by burying this information in a report released after the election, no one will pay much attention after the vote and the bonds will already be in motion to sell. The train, at that time, cannot be stopped.
Here is some of the latest data directly from the Northcarolina.edu website for everyone to contemplate:
1. Eight of the campuses receiving $679 million total have increased student population over the last six years, but at a paltry rate, most less than 2 percent total for the six-year period, two campuses growing less than 1 percent total over the last six years (2010-15).
2. The other five campuses receiving $246 million total have lost student population over the last six years, the least by 1.05 percent and the highest by 24 percent.
3. The classroom vacancy rate for the eight campuses increasing student population ranges from 26.8 percent to 53.8 percent and the lab vacancy rate ranges from 24.1 percent to 41.9 percent.
4. The classroom vacancy rate for the five campuses decreasing in student population ranges from 31.8 percent to 51.6 percent and the lab vacancy rate ranges from 23.9 percent to 47.3 percent.
In light of the four points above, it begs the question, “With the slow to no-growth rate in student populations and with the high vacancy rates in both classroom and labs, why are we adding in the range of 2,000 to 2,500 new seats to our system at a cost of nearly $900 million to the taxpayer (about $36,000 per seat)?”
It would appear we have several years’ of classroom and lab capacity without building in all our campuses.
In addition, because the data does not completely reflect a totally accurate picture, we have to give a moment to the changing definition of “student population.”
The above data takes into account that everyone who signs up as a student is counted as a student, but an ever-increasing number of students may not ever set foot on campus (virtual students) or may go one day a week for one or two classes at a time (many of these students utilize classroom and lab space during the evening hours when the demand is less).
Also, as a result of legislation passed in 2014, students now can take the first two years of a university education at a community college, which will further reduce the student count. If you subtract the part-time students, virtual students and those who will choose the community college option from the total, it may show that there isn’t a single campus in the system increasing in student population.
To justify building more classrooms and labs, student population must be increasing. It appears it is not.
I asked in the beginning, “Do we really need these new expenditures?” and the answer still remains “I don’t know — more than likely not, but because the university system refuses to obey the law and continues to keep this critical information secret until after the election, I have to assume they are hiding something.”
Voters must ask why. The integrity of our university system is at stake.
As a citizen and voter and taxpayer you have a choice: Demand to be an informed voter or vote no.
Taking a stand on principles.
Rep. Mark Brody, R-Union, represents House District 55, which includes Anson and Union counties, in the North Carolina General Assembly.