RALEIGH — The Wake County school system has identified $2.2 billion in school-construction needs, but school board members and county commissioners said Thursday that they won’t ask the public to approve a school bond issue of that size.
Administrators said that $2.2 billion during the next five years would help build 32 new schools and make major renovations at 28 schools, along with paying for other projects. Because a bond issue that large would cost the average Wake County homeowner as much as $375 a year in higher property taxes, county leaders said they’ll ask for a much lower amount.
“I don’t think I’ve heard anybody advocate for a $2.2 billion bond,” school board member Kevin Hill said. “I don’t want people to be shocked into thinking that’s what the school board is asking for. It’s not.”
Joe Bryan, chairman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners, said the elected panels are trying to arrive at a reasonable amount for the bond issue. A 27 percent increase in the property tax rate is not acceptable, he said.
Commissioners and school board members held their third joint meeting Thursday to try to work out the details of a school-construction bond measure that could appear on the Oct. 8 ballot. To meet that timetable, the amount has to be agreed upon by the end of June.
On Thursday, administrators laid out all their needs, based on current assumptions such as not building new year-round schools.
“Our goal today is to present the needs upfront and make adjustments,” said Joe Desormeaux, the district’s assistant superintendent for facilities.
Desormeaux added they’ll present four scenarios with lower cost figures next month.
County Manager David Cooke said a $2.2 billion plan would result in a property tax rate increase of 14.68 cents per $100 of assessed value to pay for the bonds and operate the new schools. With the average Wake County home costing $250,000, the resulting tax increase would be about $375 a year.
As soon as Cooke mentioned the figure, members of both boards said they would not ask for that amount in a bond issue.
“Nobody is advocating this,” school board member Tom Benton said.
County Commissioner Caroline Sullivan said that $2.2 billion is a “pie in the sky” figure because there’s no way that all those projects could be completed in the next five years.
Bryan said $2.2 billion would be what the school district got in a “utopian world.” He said commissioners will review the scenarios from school facilities staff to come up with a viable number.
Bryan and Commissioner Paul Coble said it’s too soon to say what the dollar amount will be. School board members request the amount, but the commissioners decide whether to approve putting the bond measure on the ballot.
Hill asked county staff for the financial implications of bond amounts such as $500 million and $800 million. Last month, county finance staff said that a $600 million bond issue would raise property taxes by 3.09 cents, or $77.25 a year on a $250,000 home.
After the meeting, school board Vice Chairwoman Christine Kushner said that she’d expect the bond issue to be less than $1 billion. She said that they can’t go with too small a bond issue or else it will put the state’s largest school district, which is growing by 3,000 students a year, even further behind.
Even if a bond issue is approved this year, school officials said they’d want to ask for another one in 2018. The last Wake school bond issue, a record $970 million, was approved by voters in 2006.
Rhetoric ratchets down
The meeting took place amid increasingly hostile relations between the boards over the efforts by commissioners to get changes in state law on school ownership and Wake school board elections. The school board opposes the changes that are incorporated in two bills filed in the state Senate this month.
Both boards are using taxpayer dollars to pay lobbyists to influence state legislators.
On Wednesday, the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce urged both boards to work together to develop a compromise before the legislation passes.
Last month’s meeting saw raised voices and insults being hurled at the table. But Thursday’s meeting was far calmer.
“We had a common interest today,” Bryan said.