Most Wake County school board candidates can agree to support the $810 million school construction bond issue that voters will decide during the next three weeks.
On Oct. 8, Wake County voters will select both the fate of the school bond issue and four of the nine school board seats. But what’s making two of the eight school board hopefuls stand out – Don McIntyre and Matt Scruggs – is they’re the only candidates opposing the bond issue.
Both men – who until recently were officers in the Wake County Republican Party – question Wake’s construction costs and the Democratic school board majority’s ability to oversee the bond spending. It mirrors the arguments made by the leadership of the Wake Republican Party – which opposes the bond issue – but puts them at odds with their fellow GOP school board candidates and several GOP elected officials and business leaders who back the bonds.
“I’m in favor of the bond if we have fiscal restraint to make sure the planning and spending is done properly,” said McIntyre, running for the District 1 seat. “If the current school board is in place, I’m against it.”
McIntyre’s opponent, school board member Tom Benton, said he’s “shocked” by his challenger’s position.
“I’m surprised that anybody running for school board who has done the research would be opposed to the bonds,” said Benton, a Democrat.
The leadership of the Wake County Democratic Party and the Wake County Republican Party have taken opposite sides on the school bond issue. Both the bond referendum and the school board races are officially nonpartisan.
All three candidates backed by the Wake Democrats are endorsing the school bond issue.
School board candidate Zora Felton, a Democrat, says the community can’t afford to fall behind keeping up with the 20,000 new students that planners project will arrive by 2018. The retired teacher also points to how the bonds would pay for renovations, such as fixing the heating and cooling system at Leesville Road High School in Raleigh, where she taught for 15 years.
“I know people don’t want to raise their taxes,” she said. “I don’t like to pay more. But we’ve got to pay for the resources that Wake County will need.”
Split within GOP
Felton’s opponent in District 7, school board member Deborah Prickett, also backs the bond issue. Prickett, a Republican, had unsuccessfully spoken to the executive committee of the Wake County Republican Party on Aug. 19 to persuade the members to not oppose the bonds.
The Wake GOP executive committee voted 17-16 to oppose the bond issue, citing their skepticism of the Democratic school board majority.
While McIntyre and Scruggs oppose the bond issue, the two other school board candidates endorsed by the Wake GOP – Prickett and Nancy Caggia – back the bonds. So do Republican elected officials such as state House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam, school board member John Tedesco and the four Republicans on the Wake County Board of Commissioners.
“Our children and our teachers need adequate safe space to learn, and we also need the technology and the safety factor, so I do hope we support the bond,” Caggia said at a candidate forum for District 9 last week.
Caggia’s opponent, school board member Bill Fletcher, was also vocal at the forum in backing the bonds.
“We need to pass the bond,” said Fletcher, a Republican. “That is the best way to meet the needs of the county.”
But in the other two school board races, voters will have a clear choice to make between candidates with differing opinions on the bonds.
The District 2 standoff
District 2 includes Garner, most of Fuquay-Varina and part of Southeast Raleigh and Knightdale. The seat became open when Tedesco decided not to run for re-election.
Scruggs said Wake should be looking for less expensive ways to pay for renovations and new schools than asking for an $810 million school bond issue. Scruggs noted that a number of schools have empty seats and that schools in neighboring Johnston County are built less expensively than in Wake.
Scruggs also disputes Wake’s student growth projections. He points to how planners overestimated Wake’s enrollment growth by more than 20,000 students when developing the $970 million bond issue approved by voters in 2006.
“I realize there is a need,” he said. “I’m not convinced that we need it this school year. Growth has slowed down the past few years. I just don’t think it’s correct that we need the money right now.”
The school system released figures Friday showing that Wake has 153,152 – 468 students more than expected this year. Wake, which is the state’s largest school system and the nation’s 16th largest, has grown by 3,644 students from last year.
But Monika Johnson Hostler, Scruggs’ Democratic opponent, notes that the bonds would pay for more than $180 million in new schools and renovation projects in Garner.
“I am absolutely supporting the bond,” she said. “They really need up-to-date new schools and what the parents want is Garner High School to be renovated.”
Less to gain in District 1
The bond issue wouldn’t pay for many projects in District 1, which includes Wake Forest, Rolesville and most of Eastern Wake. But Benton, the board member running for office, says the district benefitted from new schools in the last bond issue and now needs to support construction in other areas.
“You can’t just look at one bond issue, but where the overall plan is going,” Benton said. “You’ve got to look at where the projected capacity is needed and build there.”
McIntyre, his opponent, says he sees no problem with the bond issue itself, but says he’ll vote against it because he doesn’t think the Democratic majority will follow through on their promises or spend the money wisely.
“I support school bonds, but not this one,” he said. “I do agree that this bond is properly structured to supply the needs of schools."
David McLennan, a political science professor at William Peace University, said their opposition to the bond issue might help McIntyre and Scruggs with “Wake County Taxpayer Association types.” But he said the fact that the bond issue has support from both Republicans and Democrats means it doesn’t have as much spark as student assignment issues had on prior school board races.
“I don’t think it will be a lightning-rod issue,” he said.
Staff writer Paul A. Specht contributed to this report.