Wake leaders discuss next school bond

khui@newsobserver.comJanuary 17, 2013 

— Wake County school leaders and commissioners hope to determine by June how many hundreds of millions of dollars they’ll ask voters for permission to borrow to pay for the next round of school construction projects.

The school board and county commissioners held the first of six planned joint meetings Thursday to work out the details for a school construction bond referendum that would go on the ballot this fall, possibly October. One of the biggest questions will be the dollar amount of the bond issue after the last one, for $970 million, was approved by voters in 2006.

“There’s a lot to be done between now and June in order to have to number we can present to the county,” said County Manager David Cooke.

The final decision on the dollar amount of the bond issue is up to commissioners, but school leaders plan to make their case to keep up with growth in the district.

The school system has preliminarily identified more than $1 billion in needs. New enrollment projections presented Thursday show that the district could gain 43,000 more students by 2022, giving the state’s largest school district more than 192,000 students.

It’s likely that the new bond issue will require a tax increase since the county has only about $90 million it can use for bonds without raising taxes. Property taxes would rise 1 cent, or $10 more a year on a home assessed at $100,000, for every $120 million that would be borrowed for the school bond.

After the meeting, school board chairman Keith Sutton said he doesn’t expect asking for as much as a $1 billion bond this year. He said he expects a compromise will be reached for a smaller amount.

The meeting took place amid strained relations between the two boards that have gotten worse since the Democratic majority on the school board fired Superintendent Tony Tata in September. The Republican majority on the board of commissioners, who were outspoken supporters of Tata, responded to the firing by postponing joint meetings on the bond issue.

It was only after both boards saw new leadership take over in December, with Sutton leading the school board and Joe Bryan becoming chairman of the commissioners, that the joint bond meetings were put back on the agenda.

The one sign of tension came at the end of the meeting when Commissioner Paul Coble warned the school board against changing a policy that would allow the school district to keep more money in its rainy-day fund without giving it to the commissioners.

Sutton said that the school board would consider Coble’s concerns. Coble and some of the other Republican commissioners have argued that the school board shouldn’t have its own emergency fund.

At the start of the meeting, Bryan urged both boards to remember to keep in mind the goal is to get a bond passed. The next joint meeting will be Feb. 21.

“There are going to be issues that we rarely agree on,” Bryan said. “There have been issues that we don’t agree on. Our success is our ability to constructively deal with both situations.”

Hui: 919-829-4534

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