Point of View

Wake schools' bond issue just an attempt to change the subject

September 20, 2013 

The Wake County Taxpayers Association’s opposition to the Wake school bond issue is not about partisanship or the $12 per month more the average Wake homeowner would pay in property taxes. The issue is good, honest governance and fiscal accountability. We would rather the money that would pay the interest on bonds go to giving teachers more pay and better support.

It is simply about the kids and the schools’ basic mission to give them a sound education. In 2003, when about 89 percent of students passed end-of-grade tests, Wake schools set a goal of having a 95 percent passing rate by 2008. Where are we now? As of 2012, the elementary school pass rate was 86.4 percent in math and 77.4 percent in reading. Middle school results were about the same. Only high school students showed a very slight improvement, going from about 83 percent to 87 percent.

School administrators will offer many reasons why the 95 percent goal hasn’t been met – changed tests, for example. However, as a friend told me, sometimes explanations are a substitute for performance. What do you do when objectives are not met? Change the subject. Talk about anything else – such as construction programs.

Some Republican bond supporters appear to have just accepted the misleading statistics released by the Wake County schools central office staff, such as information from a “Facilities Utilization” report that “the Wake school system is at 103.2 percent of long-range capacity, and 16.9 percent of students and teachers operate out of modular classrooms.”

First, the 16.9 percent in modular classrooms refers to those assigned to the existing, bought-and-paid-for 1,136 modular classrooms. But the 103.2 percent capacity figure doesn’t include 624 of those very same modular classrooms and the 15,251 student seats they have, as if they just did not exist. According to WCPSS, they are not part of the so-called “optimum” plan. So it is plain that eliminating 55 percent of existing modular units from the calculation reduces the number of students in them by roughly the same amount. You simply cannot have it both ways.

In the 103.2 percent of capacity number quoted, school administrators also do not include 1,670 classrooms (approximately 40,000 seats) that are used for “support, pull outs, special education, art, etc.” Advocates claim bond opponents want to use all of these for regular classrooms. Not true. But do they really need 20 percent of the space – 10 classrooms per school – for these activities?

In March, school staff presented an opening gambit, a “must-have” plan to county commissioners. It called for spending $2.2 billion and building 32 schools by 2018. It also included a renovation of Fuquay-Varina High School at a cost of $82 million. The $82 million was later revised down to $63 million due to an “error.”

Because the March plan was not well-received, staff presented some alternatives to the board of commissioners at an April meeting. The primary scenario called for spending $2.3 billion for 32 new schools and various upgrades. The other three scenarios offered were for less money and fewer schools. These were throw-away options as none of the three provided enough capacity to meet the enrollment forecast.

The May offering to the commissioners was a new “must-have” list calling for 16 new schools and various upgrades costing $939.9 million. Surprisingly, the Fuquay-Varina High School renovation was not included in this plan. The county commissioners decided to present the $810 million bond-issue requirement for this plan to the voters.

The 2013 Capital Investment Program calls for spending of $993 million. The proposed bond issue is for $810 million. We infer that Wake County schools have $183 million available without the bond issue. This is enough to do all the school renovations planned ($169 million) and put a dent in the technology upgrades ($65 million).

Advocates of the 2013 school bond issue really should do their homework.

Anthony Pecoraro of Raleigh is vice president of the Wake County Taxpayers Association.

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