As a resident of Iredell County my entire life, I have watched Iredell County grow from a population of
50,000 in the 1960s to 167,000 residents in 2020.
Like many counties across our state and country, the United States saw tremendous growth after the end of World War II. Communities like Iredell were populated with small to large textile and furniture plants. Iredell County alone had two major textile employers, United Merchants and Manufacturers in Statesville and Burlington Industries in Mooresville. Both were significantly large textile operations in our county, employing over 5,000 workers at one point. Kewaunee Scientific was and still is one of our largest furniture manufacturers and continues to operate today.
During these times of economic growth, we saw the population of our small county begin to grow and thus the need for additional schools. The significant business tax base helped pay for many of the schools that were built during the 1960s and 1970s in Iredell County like many others across our state. The taxes collected from these many industries helped fund the majority of community growth when it came to building schools.
Like many counties across the country, we’ve seen these industries leave. We are all too often reminded of this fact when driving by these hollow and empty plants or repurposed buildings. Industry loss had impacted many lives, and caused loss in more ways than one. This exodus of industry shifted the burden of community growth to property owners like you and I. The issue in having property owners pay for growth is that it takes an average home cost of over $400,000 at our current tax rate to fill the void these industries left when closing down in our community.
As a result, it is of extreme importance that the community seek new industry to foster growth. Industry growth helps offset the tax burden to the homeowner. Iredell County, in my opinion, has been blessed in many ways as we have attracted numerous corporations throughout our county. This economic growth has helped us maintain a lower tax rate than most of our surrounding counties.
In North Carolina, the Constitution dictates that school systems, with the exception of buildings and their maintenance, be carried financially by the state. Over the years this has changed significantly. Retirement and even positions that were once paid by the state have been pushed down to local budgets. This has placed an undue burden on local counties as they are required to provide the building and maintenance for schools.
With growth in Iredell County, we are aware of the need to build additional schools. Additionally, the cost to maintain our older schools continues. In a 2014 Berkeley study on the cost of maintaining school systems, the average maintenance and operations cost at that time was just over $5 per square feet.
The Iredell-Statesville School System operates and maintains over 4.3 million square feet each day. We do this at a cost of $2 per square foot. With a significantly lower cost per square foot, the Iredell-Statesville Schools are effectively maintaining our buildings.
Our people are conscientious and hard-working and look for ways to save taxpayer dollars in everything we do. When working on a public school budget, the public must realize that there are distinct differences in maintenance funding (operating; servicing ; fixing existing facilities & equipment) and infrastructure improvements and replacements (replacing or upgrading existing facilities & equipment). Maintenance & Operation is a current expense budget item. Infrastructure Replacement & Upgrades is a capital investment budget item. In addition, funds that are earmarked for capital investment cannot be used to pay for classroom teachers or materials.
We are currently in the planning stages of building our sixth high school. This process will take close to three years to complete and, based on the current growth data in our county, the school will be almost at capacity when we open the doors.
Dr. Kenny Miller, a longtime veteran of Iredell-Statesville schools with almost 50 years of experience under his public education belt, has seen the lean times. He’s also seen times when capital funding was plentiful to the point we were able to renovate or replace much-needed buildings. There has been a facilities task force in place in Iredell County for over a decade. This task force is composed of citizens, county commissioners, school board members, and school leadership. Over the years, this group has meticulously looked at every school site, determining short-term versus long-term needs at each of our schools.
The Facilities and Planning Task Force document breaks items into three phases. The maintenance department, schools, and task force use this guiding document to determine if bonds are needed or what capital funding the commissioners need to provide in order to keep taxpayer assets in good working order. The school system houses over $800 million in assessed assets.
While we constantly strive to do things effectively and at a lower cost, we will always look for ways to improve when managing such a large portfolio of assets. Taxpayers entrust us to manage our facilities so that we can adequately prepare students today, and also serve generations to come. Like our own home budgets, we simply must decide, with the limited resources available, which projects need to be done immediately and which ones can be placed on a long-term wish list.
Dr. Jeff James is the superintendent of Iredell-Statesville Schools.