Wake County school board members were told Tuesday that waiting until 2018 to hold a school construction bond referendum won’t result in less funding to help meet the district’s needs over the next two years.
The Wake County Board of Commissioners are weighing whether to put a school construction bond referendum on this year’s Nov. 8 ballot or wait until May 2018 to pay for the next round of new schools and renovation projects.
During a joint meeting Tuesday of the commissioners and school board, county finance staff said the exact same amount of $386 million would be available for the next two years regardless of when the school bond referendum is held.
But the assurance, however, was met with skepticism from school board members, who are working on the details of the next building program. The school board is expected to complete the details of the next building program on May 17, then present a request that commissioners fund the projects.
“I’m trying to understand why not moving it up doesn’t improve options for the county,” school board member Bill Fletcher said during the meeting.
Deputy County Manager Johnna Rogers explained that the school system isn’t planning to spend an amount in the next two years greater than the amount that could be provided by waiting until a 2018 bond referendum.
Sig Hutchinson, vice chairman of the board of commissioners, said the biggest point he took away from the meeting was that the county doesn’t need to raise property taxes the next two years to pay for school construction. He said the final decision on when to hold the school bond referendum rests with what’s in the best interests in the community.
“It really doesn’t matter if we go (with a referendum) now or in two years,” Hutchinson said in an interview.
The county’s ability to schedule a school bond referendum is constricted by a 2014 state law limiting such votes to dates when all polling places would be open for a previously scheduled election. That eliminates the option for Wake to hold a referendum in an odd-numbered year.
If the school bond referendum isn’t held until 2018, commissioners would use a different form of borrowing that doesn’t require voter approval to pay for school construction needs until then.
The Wake County school system has identified more than $2 billion in construction needs over the next seven years at an average of $300 million per year. At Tuesday’s joint meeting, school facilities staff gave a presentation showing that enrollment is projected to increase by 20,904 students by 2022.
To help address a shortage of seats in different parts of the county, school staff said 11 new schools are needed between the 2017-18 and 2023-24 fiscal years – seven elementary, two middle and two high schools. Nine major renovation projects have also tentatively been identified.
“We’ve tried to bring the numbers down to the most necessary need,” school board member Susan Evans said.
While the boards may not agree on the final amount, members repeatedly talked about how civil and collegial the meetings have been. The Democratic-led school board often had heated meetings with the commissioners before that body switched from Republican to Democratic control after the 2014 election.
“I know you’ll have hard questions and we’ll have hard questions,” said school board Chairman Tom Benton. “But at least I’m confident that we’ll approach them in a civil manner.