Wake Tech seeks $200 million for construction

Bond on the Nov. ballot for new RTP branch

jstancill@newsobserver.comOctober 24, 2012 

— Wake Technical Community College is banking on county voters to approve $200 million in borrowing to expand the school’s booming campuses.

If Wake voters say yes on Nov. 6, Wake Tech will add classroom buildings to its busy Northern Wake campus and start construction on a new Research Triangle Park branch in Morrisville. The main campus in Raleigh would get some repairs and the Public Safety Education campus in Raleigh would be completed.

County officials say the bond issue would not require a tax increase, but approval for Wake Tech would use up the county’s current borrowing capacity. That would all but ensure a tax increase for any future K-12 school bond in Wake.

Wake Tech has exploded with growth in recent years, fueled by Wake’s population surge and the economic downturn, which sent the unemployed back to school for retraining.

For the first time, degree-seeking students climbed above 20,000 this fall; a total of 66,000 people took at least one course at the college. Wake Tech officials like to say the college serves one of eight adults in Wake County. Based on full-time equivalent measures, it is now the state’s largest community college.

“The students have been coming in droves to Wake Tech,” said Stephen Scott, the college president.

Scott has been making the rounds in recent weeks, talking to businesses, civic groups and candidate forums, making the case to voters about the bond referendum. Wake voters approved bonds of $40 million in 2004 and $92 million in 2007.

The college reached capacity about four semesters ago, Scott said, and about 5,400 people were on a waiting list for classes this fall. That wait-list figure had actually dropped with the opening of two buildings this fall.

‘Guaranteed of filling’

Anthony Petty, a political science instructor, said it is rare when one of his introductory political science or American government classes doesn’t have a waiting list. Credit for those two classes automatically transfers to the state’s four-year universities as long as students earn a “C” or better.

“They’re pretty well guaranteed of filling,” he said of the classrooms, which seat 36.

The Northern Wake campus, near Interstate 540 off Louisburg Road, opened in 2007 and has bustled ever since. On Tuesday, students studied and ate lunch at outdoor tables. Their cafeteria seating area had been turned into an early voting polling place, and the parking lot scramble was worse than usual.

Even on normal days, students have been told to leave plenty of time to find a space there. Still, latecomers are the norm in most classes; they’re circling the parking lots.

“Parking is killing me,” said Lydia Thompson, a first-year student who was eating a sandwich between classes. “I have to get here 30 minutes before so I can ensure that I get a parking space.”

Kate Hatfield, a second-year student, learned her lesson last year. She was a little late to registration and couldn’t get into a math class she needed. Now, she has made it into an honors program and benefits from early registration.

Her secret for parking?

“I take 8 o’clock classes,” she said, “so when I get here there are still spots. If you get here in the morning, you don’t have to leave.”

If approved, the $200 million, plus another $10 million in cash from the county, would probably alleviate some of the parking pain. Construction plans include roughly 4,500 parking spaces at various campuses, plus repaving of 2,000 more.

The money would be spent during a four-year period starting in 2013. Some 500,000 square feet of new building space would be constructed, including the first three buildings of a campus in Research Triangle Park, a parking lot, roads and other infrastructure. That campus will have a focus on biotechnology and information technology, Scott said.

So far, the Wake Tech bond referendum has not encountered any organized opposition. The Wake County Taxpayers Association has so far not taken a stand on the borrowing.

Russell Capps of the taxpayer watchdog group said the association typically supports the community colleges. But, he said of the $200 million, “That’s a large sum of money.”

A ‘jobs’ campaign

About 60 companies have donated money for the $60,000 advertising campaign for the Wake Tech bond, including “Vote Yes” signs dotting the county.

Scott’s sales pitch includes the familiar mantra of all politicians in 2012 – jobs, jobs, jobs. For example, he said, if the 5,000 students on Wake Tech’s waiting list could get into classes and boost their earning power by $1,000 a month, that would translate to $5 million in added monthly income for Wake County citizens.

That’s $60 million a year.

The classroom construction would open doors to students seeking affordable education, upgraded skills and a better life, Scott said.

“Bottom line, it will allow us to serve about 20,000 more people, and that would be equivalent to over 5,000 full-time students,” Scott said. “It’s a no brainer, isn’t it?”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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