Wake County voters approve $810 million bond issue for schools

khui@newsobserver.comOctober 8, 2013 

  • Results

    Yes →  57.71%

    No →  42.29%

    (200 of 200 precincts reporting)

Wake County voters showed their willingness Tuesday to raise their own taxes to make room for the next wave of public-school students, approving an $810 million school construction bond issue by a 15-percentage point margin.

Approval of the bond issue paves the way for school leaders to begin one of the biggest school-construction programs in Wake’s history.

Based on unofficial totals showing all 200 precincts reporting, 57.71 percent of voters backed the bond issue. School bonds supporters had campaigned on the message that the measure was the least expensive way to keep pace with as many as 20,000 new students projected to arrive by 2018.

School and county leaders praised the public for its willingness to sacrifice to support public education.

“I’m really proud of the citizens of Wake County,” said Joe Bryan, chairman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners. “It’s a great thing to invest in the future of education.”

School board Chairman Keith Sutton said the vote showed the public believed that growth was coming, even as bond opponents disputed the accuracy of the projections.

“The voters value education, and they want to build world-class facilities,” he said.

The bonds would pay for most of a $939.9 million construction program that includes 16 new schools, six major school renovations, smaller repairs at 79 schools, new technology and other projects.

Passage of the bonds will result in a property tax increase of 5.53 cents per $100 of assessed value that would be phased in over several years. That works out to $145.72 more per year on a $263,500 home, the average value in Wake.

Commissioners are scheduled to consider a tax increase for the bonds in June, with people seeing the results on next year’s tax bill.

Despite their defeat, opponents of the bond issue said they will continue to stay involved.

“We are disappointed, but we will be watching and monitoring the school board much more closely,” said Ed Jones, chairman of the Wake County Taxpayers Association. “We will be watching every dollar they decide to spend.”

Bryan said he respected those who voted no and promised to make sure that county leaders stretch every construction dollar they can.

While the Republican-led commissioners and the Democratic-led school board put aside their differences to get the bond issue on the ballot, questions linger about who will ultimately be in charge of the school construction projects.

This year the General Assembly rejected a bill that would have transferred authority for Wake County school construction from the school board to the county commissioners. But Republican commissioners have said they’ll push for the bill to be reintroduced in next year’s legislative session.

Both Bryan and Sutton said that Tuesday was a time for celebration and that they’ll deal with the issue of school construction authority later.

School and county leaders are already looking at possibly requesting another bond issue in 2016. Before Tuesday, the last school construction bond issue for the Wake school system had been a $970 million measure approved by voters in 2006.

Supporters outspent opponents

The vote came after a campaign in which supporters of the bonds held a major fundraising advantage over the opposition.

Campaign-finance reports filed this week show that the Friends of Wake County, the group promoting the bonds, raised $281,590. The Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce formed the Friends of Wake and has been the group’s top contributor at $83,000.

The Friends of Wake also received donations from companies tied to the construction and design industries. It was estimated that the projects from the bonds would bring 22,000 design and construction jobs to the area.

Friends of Wake’s deep pockets allowed it to mount a coordinated media campaign of television, radio and newspaper ads and campaign mailers.

In contrast, the Wake County Taxpayers Association and the East Wake Republican Club had far less money to spend opposing the bonds. The Wake County Republican Party also opposed the bond issue but didn’t match the proponents’ effort in support. The issue had split the group’s ranks, with GOP elected officials on both sides of the debate.

“We were being overpowered by that money,” said former school board Chairman Ron Margiotta, who had worked with the opponents. “How do you compete against that? But the people have spoken, and I respect that.”

Working within their respective resources, both sides of the bond debate repeatedly hammered out their core messages.

For bond supporters, it was the need to make sure the growing 153,152-student school system – the largest in the state – had enough seats to deal with the projected influx of new students.

Bond supporters noted the combination of low interest rates and Wake County’s AAA credit rating as reasons to pass a bond issue. They also pointed to the county’s property tax rate as the lowest among surrounding counties and the lowest among other North Carolina counties with large school systems.

The Friends of Wake told voters it was their civic duty to vote yes, with mailers telling them to “take 15 minutes to show children and teachers in Wake County that they matter.”

Critics doubted need for bonds

But opponents of the bonds argued that the borrowing wasn’t needed, citing what they said were ample numbers of empty seats in schools and inaccurate enrollment projections in the 2006 bond issue. They also questioned how much Wake spends on construction, with the bonds paying for $70 million high schools and for renovations that cost almost as much as building a new school.

Bond opponents had also attacked the financial basis for the bonds, questioning the wisdom of the county adding so much additional debt and increasing property taxes by 10.4 percent.

Voters in Cary, Morrisville and Raleigh backed the bonds, while the measure ran into more opposition in Wake Forest, eastern Wake and southwestern Wake. A total of 15.33 percent of eligible voters showed up at the polls.

“We have a public that understands the value of education and the cost of not investing in it,” said Billie Redmond, co-chairwoman of the Friends of Wake. “The public saw the facts and didn’t listen to the rhetoric.”

Hui: 919-829-4534

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