Midtown Raleigh News

Divided Wake GOP opposes school bond

A divided Wake County Republican Party announced its opposition Wednesday to a proposed $810 million school construction bond issue, but it was not clear whether Republicans or other conservative groups will mount a concerted effort to defeat the October ballot proposal.

In a written statement, Wake GOP officials said it was by the “narrowest of margins” that the party’s executive committee made the “difficult” decision to oppose the school bonds. County Republican leaders said they’re not sure whether they’ll campaign against the bonds. Another group that has historically been the main voice in anti-school bond efforts has yet to decide whether to get involved.

With the referendum scheduled for Oct. 8, the apparent absence of a well-funded opposition should make it easier for bond supporters.

“The pro-bond side is going to be in a better situation than the opponents,” said David McLennan, a political science professor at William Peace University. “Opponents don’t want to be accused of being anti-schools.”

Also on Wednesday, the Wake Republican Party announced it was opposing the $75 million Raleigh transportation-bond issue.

Supporters argue that the school bond issue is needed to keep up with growth that’s bringing 3,000 new students a year to the state’s largest school district. To get out the message, the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce reformed the Friends of Wake County committee to campaign for the bond. The Friends of Wake spent $661,000 in 2006 to help pass a school bond referendum.

No equivalent, well-funded anti-bond group has yet been announced.

Americans for Prosperity financed and organized an unsuccessful anti-bond campaign in 2006. The group’s forerunner did the same in 1999, when the school bond was defeated.

Chris Farr, deputy state director of Americans for Prosperity, said Wednesday that the group had not decided whether to get involved in this year’s Wake school bond fight. But she said the group’s ambivalence should not be mistaken for support.

“We have questions about an $810 million bond,” Farr said.

The Wake County Taxpayers Association has come out against the school bond, arguing that the district doesn’t need the new seats now if it leaves in place all the modular classrooms school officials want to remove. In past campaigns, the association has partnered with other groups that have more financial resources.

A close vote

Wake Republican leaders made the decision to oppose the school bonds Monday night.

At Monday’s meeting, county commissioners Joe Bryan and Paul Coble and school board member Deborah Prickett, all Republicans, asked the Wake GOP leadership to support the bond. Wake GOP Chairwoman Donna Williams said the decision came down to a 17-16 vote.

Wake GOP leaders said their opposition to the bond was based on their views on the Democratic majority on the school board and not so much on the bond itself. In a written statement, the Wake GOP said the school board demonstrated a “lack of transparency and accountability” that “has led to a profound loss of confidence in their actions and their ability to make good decisions for our children.”

“We understand that schools do need to be renovated and we do need new schools,” Williams said in an interview. “We know that. It comes down to the lack of confidence in the school board majority.”

Williams said that the position on the bond might have been different if the legislature had passed a bill shifting authority for school construction from the school board to the commissioners. The bill passed in the state Senate but was rejected in the state House.

But Williams said no decision has been made whether to spend any money campaigning against the bond. She said that her main priority is electing the candidates running in this fall’s municipal and school board elections.

School board Chairman Keith Sutton, a Democrat, said voters are sophisticated enough not to rely on political parties when deciding on a bond issue. He pointed to how the Republican-led commissioners and the Democratic-led school board unanimously backed the bond.

“There is nothing partisan about building schools,” Sutton said. “There is nothing partisan about replacing a roof.”

Both Bryan, the chairman of the board of commissioners, and Phil Zachary, co-chairman of the Friends of Wake, stressed how close the GOP vote was on the bond and how carefully they worded their statement.

“That sends out a strong signal that there are people in the Republican Party who support having the bonds passed,” Zachary said.

He said he’s less worried about any organized opposition than about what he called “confusion” in the community about the need for the bonds. For instance, he said, some people who are upset that teachers aren’t getting a raise this year are blaming the decision on the county, when most teachers’ salaries are funded by the state.

“We’ve got to get people out to vote pretty quickly this year,” Zachary said. “I’m worried that people won’t get out this fall.”