Wake laying out school construction needs

khui@newsobserver.comAugust 6, 2012 

  • Asking voters to approve school bond proposals Wake County voters have been asked to approve steadily increasing school construction bond referendum amounts over the years. June 1996: Voters approve a $250 million school bond issue. June 1999: Voters reject a $650 million bond issue. November 2000: Voters approve a $500 million bond issue, October 2003: Voters approve a $450 million bond issue. November 2006: Voters approve a $970 million bond issue.

Wake County school administrators on Tuesday will present more than $1 billion in school construction needs. Those needs will be the starting point for discussing the size of an upcoming bond referendum – one that likely will involve a property tax increase.

Administrators will tell a school board committee that, during the next four years, Wake will need 24 new schools, major renovations at 12 schools, smaller renovations at 16 schools, four regional bus centers and millions to build and upgrade athletic facilities.

No overall price tag is listed in the documents, but the cost for all the projects would easily exceed $1 billion. School board members, working with county commissioners, will review the needs to determine what they’ll ask voters to approve in a referendum that could come as soon as spring 2013.

“We have to be cognizant that these are not good times,” said school board member Chris Malone, chairman of the facilities committee. “We have to realize that there will be a tax increase unless we can find a way around it. I would hope that we don’t have to raise taxes but I don’t see how that’s possible.”

The last school bond package approved by voters in 2006 allowed Wake to borrow $970 million, raising property taxes by $94 a year on a home assessed at $200,000.

The development of a new school capital program, including the bond proposal to borrow the money to pay for most of the projects, is always a balancing act. Historically, the school board and commissioners have scaled back the projects identified by school staff.

“This isn’t the final list,” said Don Haydon, the school system’s chief facilities and operations officer. “This is to get the conversation started. It’s one way to look at the data.”

This time, school administrators say they need to build 14 new elementary schools, three middle schools, five regular high schools, an alternative school and a high school focused on teaching career skills. A typical new high school can cost $75 million.

Staff says one way to have fewer than 24 new schools is to open some on a year-round calendar and to convert existing schools to that calendar. Year-round schools can hold more students than regular schools because the buildings are used much more often.

The 2006 bond issue included the conversion of nearly two-dozen schools to a year-round calendar and the opening of new elementary and middle schools on that calendar.

Staff says Wake needs the new schools because the district could pick up more than 20,000 students between the 2011-12 and the 2016-17 school years, leading to a potential 19,863-seat shortfall.

But the shortfall, which is based on old enrollment projections, could turn out to be even greater. Wake has 151,391 students registered for the 2012-13 school year, a gain of 4,704 students from last year and nearly 1,000 more than projected. New projections will be run in September.

But while Wake builds new schools, it also has to balance the need to renovate existing schools.

A big chunk of the renovations could go to 12 schools, mostly dating from the 1950s to 1970s. These renovations can cost almost as much as building a new school.

“These repairs aren’t a wish list,” Malone said. “They need to be done.”

Other needs listed include:

•  More than $30 million to create four regional transportation centers for bus maintenance.

•  Between $10 million and $30 million to build a regional athletic stadium or complex that could be used for band performances and sports such as basketball, baseball, football and track and field.

•  Some $2 million to upgrade 53 elementary schools that don’t have tracks or the track lacks a suitable surface.

•  Between $1 million and $7 million to upgrade Athens Drive High School’s football stadium.

If the bond referendum is held in the spring, Haydon said the school board would need to agree on the projects to be funded by December, with commissioners deciding in January.

One of the major questions will be determining the size of the bond issue.

School board member Jim Martin said they need to determine the needs before the amount.

“I’m not naive enough to think we can’t take cost into consideration,” said Martin, a member of the facilities committee.

Malone said it has to be “more modest” than the $970 million bond issue approved in 2006.

“I don’t believe we can sell a $970 million bond,” Malone said. “I wouldn’t support that amount.”

Commissioner Joe Bryan said the commission will likely ask that the potential $1 billion-plus price tag be divided into more than one bond.

“It’d be nicer to look at what we have to do over a three- or-four-year period,” Bryan said. “It needs to be reasoned and measured.”

With a penny increase in the property tax rate worth about $120 million, an increase of 3 or 4 cents could supply a portion of the projects that would be requested.

Another question that has to be resolved is whether the referendum should be in the spring or fall of 2013. A spring vote would likely have a lower turnout than an October or November vote when municipal and school board races are on the ballot.

The facilities committee recommends a May 2013 referendum to speed up when the school district would get the money to start the construction projects. A fall referendum could delay getting money until 2014.

“The general sentiment is we need to be working toward a spring deadline,” Martin said. “When you look at the needs of the county, it wouldn’t be responsible to drag it out.”

Hui: 919-829-4534

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