Wake bond rejection would take heavy toll

September 11, 2013 

Opponents of the proposed $810 million school bond issue in Wake County take the prospect of a failed bond referendum lightly, but the effect of a “no” vote would place a heavy burden on a schools system already bending under the weight of growth.

No need for new schools and renovated buildings, opponents say. Why, the school system can get along just fine by adding modular classrooms and by more efficiently using facilities. The translation of that logic in the real world would be crowding children into trailers, perhaps running double shifts at high schools (some students in the early morning to early afternoon, others afternoon to evening), crowding classrooms countywide and, oh, yes, creating more year-round schools.

While there’s much to be said for the year-round calendar, it hasn’t really caught on with a lot of parents, and the school system and board members could expect a thunderous reaction to moving more schools to a year-round schedule.

Bond opponents have locked into a mental image of free-spending bureaucrats wasting taxpayers’ hard-earned money. But the numbers point to a genuine and pressing need for more schools. With more than 150,000 students, Wake’s school system is the largest in the state and is projected to grow by 20,000 more students by 2018.

Opponents seem to think that designing schools and placing students are no more complicated than filling up a rental storage unit. But the need isn’t simply about providing a seat for every child. The need is about buildings in which they can learn. That requires adequate space and equipment.

Cold, hard facts

A failed bond issue would require further adjustments from staff and teachers already squeezed by reduced funding. Consider a recent report to the school board by David Neter, the chief business officer. Neter said the system was able to avoid layoffs this year by moving money around. But the school system used $28.6 million in the rainy day fund to help, and that money hasn’t been replaced. The Wake system this year will be getting about $100 less per student from the state than it did last year. What that means is that, absent any action from the state, the widely admired system will have to cut personnel at a time when it can least afford to do so.

Just imagine things getting far worse if the bond issue proposal is defeated.

Joe Bryan, Republican chairman of the Wake County commissioners and admirably a strong bond-issue supporter, says the ability to sell bonds is vital. “It’s the best and most cost-effective way to build schools,” he said.

Parents who like having some choice when it comes to choosing traditional or year-round calendars need to understand that, without the bond issue, that choice will be nonexistent because more year-round schools will be a financial necessity.

Chaotic change

Split shifts at high schools? Wake has never done it, but it wreaks havoc with student schedules because of extracurricular activities and jobs. The changes dictated by a failed bond issue also might be chaotic for working parents who have to schedule drop-offs and pickups with their own professional schedules in mind.

Classrooms would become crowded. More kids in a class translates into less individual attention, complications in helping kids with special needs and discipline problems for teachers who already are overburdened.

Bond-issue proponents, who sit on the political spectrum from conservative Republicans to liberal Democrats, will be making their case in the coming weeks. It is a strong case. It is a bipartisan case. And it is an essential case.

The truth is, many bond opponents are not thinking about the quality of education at all. They resent that Democrats, after losing control of the school board in 2009, took it back after an embarrassing performance by a Republican majority. For these naysayers, the bond campaign is all about partisanship and ideology, and a disturbing element on the political fringe is simply against a strong public education system.

Its school system is the best thing Wake County has going for it. The attraction of quality schools has brought growth, fueled the housing market and added to the tax base. If the bond proposal is defeated, Wake will lose more than money for schools. It will lose its appeal. And once lost, it will be even more expensive to reclaim.

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