When the county commissioners voted to drop the renovations at Vandora Springs Elementary last Monday from the current construction program, some in the town wondered ‘how.’
How could the Vandora Springs renovations be removed from the bond project already passed by voters in 2013?
The answer is, it happens all the time.
The language in the bond wasn’t spelled out. Nor is it ever.
“The voters did not vote for issuing debt for specific projects,” said Kara Millonzi, associate professor of public law and government at UNC Chapel Hill. “What the voters voted for was to authorize the county to issue general obligation bonds to fund various school construction projects.”
“And the exact nature of those projects is to be determined by the county board and the school board each year,” Millonzi added.
Local governments have been much more general in the bond referendum language in the past few decades, she said. Not specifying the language in the referendum keeps the county from being held accountable if they cannot follow through with particular project, if, for instance, construction costs rise like it has in Wake County Public Schools.
“(The referendum) wouldn’t have gotten into specifics and that was done purposely so (the county) wouldn’t be tied down to specific projects,” Millonzi said.
But while that is legal, some on the Garner council don’t think it’s ethical.
Council members Kathy Behringer and Gra Singleton have been the two most outspoken about the issue.
“My guess is you won’t have much support here because you said Vandora was going to be approved in this cycle,” Singleton said.
“They (the school board) broke faith with us,” Behringer said.
Voters approved an $810 million school construction bond issue in October 2013, paving the way for $990 million in projects. Among the projects the school system said they would fund in that bond, were the renovations at Vandora Springs Elementary.
However, construction costs for various projects came in higher than expected and school leaders determined last month they would reallocate some of the funding to projects that were short of money. One of the projects short of money was the renovations and construction at Garner Magnet High School.
Vandora Springs was among the projects at the short end of the stick, because construction for the won’t need to start until after the next referendum is passed, Joe Desormeaux, assistant superintendent for facilities, said in May.
Renovations were expected to begin in 2017 – after the latest school board update – and conclude in August 2018. Most of the campus was supposed to be renovated.
Wake County school leaders plan to place the funding for the renovations in its next big bond on a ballot in 2016.
“We’re disappointed,” Jenn Fowler, Vandora Springs PTA president said. “But I think we are hopeful that voters in Wake County Public Schools will pull through for us in 2016 and we can be back on track for a new and improved Vandora.”
“We have such an excellent staff and the families of our school. It’s a much needed renovation.”
Council member Buck Kennedy, whose wife taught at the school for 15 years, said the school needed repair when she was there a few years ago. She recently retired five years ago.
“Wake County Public School System has known it needed repairs and renovations for a long time,” he said.
Needs to be passed
If the 2016 referendum is passed, nothing will actually change because the projects would still be on schedule. But it needs to be passed.
Although historically Wake County voters have generally approved school bonds, getting them passed isn’t always a guarantee. County commissioners could also potentially put the Wake transit referendum on the ballot, which calls for a half-cent sales tax increase and a $10 increase in vehicle registration.
“We’ve seen over the last few years that votes have been pretty close,” said David McLennan, a political analyst at Meredith College. “We have even seen in Wake County bond issues fail.”
For instance, in 2006, only 53 percent of voters voted ‘yes’ to a school bond. And in 2013, only 57 percent of voters voted ‘yes.’ Wake County voters have approved eight of the past nine bonds, including the 2013 bond. The last bond to be rejected was in 1999.
“It really raises issue of credibility,” McLennan said. “That’s what makes voters nervous. You said you were going to do this the first time, why should we do this a second time?”
Efforts to reach school board members Christine Kushner, Monika Johnson-Hostler and Kevin Hill in time for deadline were unsuccessful.
“The challenge is that the cost of new construction including an awful lot of off site requirements from NCDOT – we have to build roads two miles from the schools – the change in the market the competition from contractors. Our cost are going up,” said school board member Bill Fletcher. “To keep projects moving a decision was made to look for funding in those projects in a future bond issue so other projects can be completed.
“We anticipate Vandora springs will be completed on the same time scheduled as was originally put on the table,” he continued. “The funding source will change but the renovation should be completed in the same time frame.”
The commissioners’ vote also delays the opening of Bryan Road Elementary by one year to 2018.
And South Garner High School’s opening will be delayed by one year to the 2018-19 school year to accommodate the expanded construction at Garner Magnet High.