One week into his job at the North Carolina Education Lottery, communications director Van Denton wrote, “Where does the money go?” in big letters on a white board.
It’s the most common question he receives, because it’s the most important one.
When the lottery was signed into law on Aug. 31, 2005, lawmakers made two promises: 35 percent of the proceeds would go directly to education and those proceeds would supplement, not supplant, general funding.
The largest chunk would go to school construction to give low-wealth counties a boost. Another would tackle smaller class sizes.
So the original formula broke down like this:
40 percent of revenue was allocated to school construction;
26 percent to pre-kindergarten;
24 percent to classroom teachers;
and 10 percent to college scholarships.
Sales totaled $885.6 million at the end of the first full year, with the West Webb Curb Market in Burlington earning the title of sixth most lucrative retailer in the state, selling around $682,000 in tickets.
Alamance, as a whole, was the 10th most lucrative county.
In return, Alamance-Burlington schools received $3.8 million in additional funding with roughly $1 million of that allocated for school construction.
And as ticket sales grew, so did the construction dollars — coming in at $1.6 million in 2008-09, $2.7 million in 2009-10 and peaking at $3 million in 2010-11.
Combined with $750,000 from the county, ABSS received almost $4 million in school capital funding that year.
It was a new era, marked by a state-of-the-art, $6.5 million Career and Technical Education Center set to open in 2012 on a 15-year payment plan the lottery would cover.
Then the Great Recession hit, and all of that changed.
Shifting the money
By the 2011 fiscal year, the General Assembly faced a financial crisis.
Though lawmakers had promised not to use lottery funds to supplant general funding, 41 percent of that year’s revenue was allocated to teacher pay to make up for funding cuts.
In addition, more than $25 million was shifted to cover a Medicaid shortfall, pre-kindergarten was cut to 17 percent, and school construction was whittled down to 23 percent.
By 2012, the construction dollars were capped at $100 million to be split between all 100 counties, and teacher pay took up nearly 50 percent of the funding.
At the same time, the Alamance Board of Commissioners cut school capital from the budget, leaving ABSS with $1.4 million to cover construction costs that summer — after reaching nearly $4 million two years before.
With a new Career and Technical Education Center to pay off and 3.5 million square-feet of schools to maintain, $1.4 million was a drop in the bucket.
And that, more than anything, is what ABSS Assistant Superintendent for Operations Todd Thorpe wishes the public understood about lottery funding.
Since 2012, ABSS has received around $1.5 million in school construction funding from the NCEL each year.
Roughly $450,000 of that is used to pay off debt for the Career and Technical Education Center, which will draw money from the lottery annually until it’s paid off in 2027.
The school system’s painting schedule, which covers five schools per year, takes another $450,000.
The remainder of the money is divvied up based on need.
This summer, Alexander Wilson Elementary School received a large chunk to build an $80,000 awning to keep car-riders out of the rain and $50,000 in new aluminum ramps, wider doors, and sidewalks required to meet Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards.
Mundane repairs add up quickly, and hundreds of mundane repairs are needed at every school.
That’s why, on Nov. 6, Alamance voters will face a $150 million bond to build a new $70 million high school and fund $80 million in renovations/expansions at eight of the current schools.
But how could ABSS could need $150 million when the lottery has been funding school construction for the last decade?
The answer: it hasn’t.
In 2017, the NCEL touted $2.43 billion in sales, compared to $885 million in 2007, but ABSS only received $1.5 million for capital improvement – a $500,000 increase from the initial allocation of $1 million in 2006-07 when the lottery was still gaining traction.
That’s after a decade and an increase of over $1 billion in sales.
If the original formula were reinstated, ABSS could receive close to $5 million for school construction each year, but Thorpe — who’s advocated for the change — says that’s doubtful.
“I’m hopeful that they’ll look at it and continue to look at it and realize that the need for the buildings is that great, and that they will move some of it back, but I don’t foresee it all ever coming back to the buildings,” he said.
Instead, the General Assembly has approved a new Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund that’s expected to draw over $2 billion from lottery funds over the next decade to provide construction grants to the state’s neediest school systems.
Though ABSS has a high level of need, Alamance is currently ineligible.
So, again, all hope is still placed on the bond.
In the meantime, the lottery will continue filling the gaps left by budget cuts and ABSS will continue to receive $1.5 million per year for construction.
For Thorpe, it isn’t much, but it’s something.
Reporter Jessica Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 336-506-3046. Follow her on Twitter at @jessicawtn.