RALEIGH — The ruling majority of the Wake County school board, locked in political battle about its neighborhood student assignment plan, faces another tough sell: persuading taxpayers to back a bond issue to build schools.
Given the expected resumption of recession-stalled enrollment growth, the need for new schools makes a bond issue inevitable. The only questions are how big will it be and when Wake citizens will be asked to vote on it.
On Wednesday, school board chairman Ron Margiotta said the county should wait until 2012 for a bond referendum. He argued that the aftermath of the recession would doom a vote any earlier.
"We have to face reality," Margiotta said. "We can't ask people for more money now."
A key ally in the board's ruling majority, John Tedesco, wants to do it in 2011.
The vote could turn into a de facto referendum on the board majority's elimination of its long-standing diversity policy in favor of neighborhood schools. By the time the next bond referendum is held, the board expects to have a plan in hand detailing how the county will be divided into community assignment zones designed to send students to schools closer to their homes.
On Tuesday, though, the ruling majority received a vivid reminder of the increasingly hostile reaction to its decision to end the district's decades-old diversity policy. Four civil rights activists staged a '60s-style protest, continuing to disrupt the school board meeting until police officers led them out in handcuffs and charged them with second-degree trespassing. Just hours earlier, school administrators presented a timetable for the neighborhood schools program and also pledged to cobble together a plan for a new bond issue.
Before the school board tries to pitch a bond issue to the public, it must present a proposal to the Wake County Board of Commissioners. The county board controls the school district's purse strings and must approve the referendum.
Tedesco, who is in charge of the committee working on the assignment plan, said people will like the new zones so much they'll vote in large numbers for a bond issue. He said that holding the referendum the same day as the 2011 school board elections, in which five of the nine board seats are on the ballot, would expand the majority.
"I think you're going to see a large level of public support," Tedesco said. "It will be icing on the cake."
Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, which has been critical of the board majority, was skeptical that the new assignment model would increase support for a bond issue. She said changing to community schools will lead to more high-poverty schools, and lower student achievement at those schools will make the public less willing to back a bond issue.
"People don't want to give money to a school system that isn't doing a good job at student achievement," Brannon said.
A flood of schoolkids
Wake County's last school bond referendum was in 2006, when voters approved issuing a record $970 million in bonds. But the recession slowed growth from more than 7,000 new students a year to under 2,000. The recession also caused several new schools to be financed by the 2006 bond issue to be put on hold.
The delays mean the pipeline of new schools in Wake will turn into a trickle after this fall. There's enough bond money left to open only three schools between 2011 and 2014. During those same four years, it's estimated that more than 20,000 new students will come to Wake, bolstering the district's current enrollment of about 140,000 students.
Talk of the next bond issue was largely on the back burner until it was included Tuesday in a staff timetable for shifting Wake toward the community schools model.
Joe Desormeaux, assistant superintendent for facilities, said administrators need to link school construction with the new assignment plan to know how many new schools are coming on line and who will attend them.
Tuesday's timetable called for determining the date and amount of the next school construction program between April and June 2011. Desormeaux said Wednesday that staff members are looking at a 2012 bond issue, possibly early that year. "It's going to be hard to get any kind of bond [issue] through right now regardless of the growth," Desormeaux said.
Desormeaux said a 2012 bond issue would mean that administrators likely wouldn't be able to use the money to open any schools until 2015.
Margiotta said waiting until 2012 would improve the chances of getting the bonds approved. He said school leaders may need to go for a smaller bond issue that year.
"I don't see the public approving anything before 2012," he said.
Tedesco said he'd like to see the public vote in October 2011, the same time as the school board elections. He argued that the voters who come out in those odd-year elections are more knowledgeable about school issues than typical voters.
Tedesco is so confident of getting public support for the new community assignment model that he wants to have it presented before late 2011, the target date set by the staff.
Staff writer Thomas Goldsmith contributed to this report.
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