Midtown Raleigh News

Wake school bond defeat would have major impact

If Wake County voters approve an $810 million school construction bond issue Oct. 8, plans have been drawn for getting the various projects running.

But if voters say no – as they did in 1999 – it’s far less clear what would happen next. School and county leaders say they have no contingency plan in case the vote doesn’t go their way.

Bond supporters charge that rejection of the proposal could lead to a host of problems, including possibly more mandatory year-round schools and high schools operating on double shifts.

But those who oppose the borrowing authority say a no vote wouldn’t be the worst thing, because they feel that the Wake County school system could get by for at least the next few years using trailers and, if needed, converting some classrooms used for special-education and arts programs.

About the only thing all sides seem to agree on is that rejecting the bond issue would force school and county leaders to start again to come up with a plan that likely would be for a lot less money.

“It’s the best and the most cost-effective way to build schools,” said Joe Bryan, chairman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners. “I’m confident it will pass. If for some reason it does not happen, we’ll have to regroup.”

Both sides already have begun painting what could happen if the bond issue is defeated.

The Friends of Wake County, the business-backed pro-bonds group, is reusing a familiar warning to encourage voters to say yes.

Bond alternatives unpopular, expensive

If the bond issue fails, the group says on its website, “the school system could be faced with the possibility of needing to convert elementary and middle schools to a multi-track, year-round calendar and using split shifts at high schools in order to gain the needed seats.”

Mandatory year-round schools are unpopular, as shown by how the plan to convert 22 schools to that calendar helped generate much of the opposition to the $970 million school bond issue on the 2006 ballot. But warnings that a no vote could force most, if not all, schools to switch to a year-round calendar helped generate enough voters to get the bonds passed.

Wake has never used split sessions at high schools – an approach used in some school systems to deal with overcrowding. In this schedule, some students go to class in the morning and early afternoon, while a second group goes in the afternoon and into the early evening.

Split sessions are unpopular for many reasons, including the impact on school athletics and the ability of teenagers to work after-school jobs.

“It’s a good selling point for why the bond should pass,” said Billie Redmond, co-chairwoman of Friends of Wake. “Why would we want to build on lesser and more expensive options?”

Friends of Wake also says that rejecting the bonds could force the county to use more expensive options to pay for school construction.

‘Scare tactics’ and ‘simple math’

Ed Jones, chairman of the Wake County Taxpayers Association, which opposes the bond issue, said talk about more year-round schools and split sessions are a “scare tactic.”

“What they’re trying to do is absolutely ridiculous,” said Tony Pecoraro, vice president of external affairs for the taxpayers association.

School board Chairman Keith Sutton said there’s been no discussion about what would be done if the bond issue fails.

While the consequences that the Friends of Wake warn about would be unpopular with families, the scenario laid out by the Wake County Taxpayers Association could also turn out to not be well liked.

The taxpayers association says the 1,100 mobile/classroom trailers now in use provide Wake the seats it needs in the near future.

Pecoraro also points to 2,000 classrooms not counted by Wake for regular classroom use. That group includes rooms used for programs such as band, music and art and “self-contained” classrooms used by special-education students who aren’t mainstreamed into a general classroom because of their learning disabilities.

Between the modulars and reclaiming some of those 2,000 classrooms, Pecoraro says, they will help cover the projected 20,000 students that could come by 2018. The taxpayers association is skeptical that many students will come because the enrollment projections from the 2006 bond issue turned out to be much higher than the actual increase.

“The real issue is they’ve got the capacity,” Pecoraro said. “But they don’t want to use it an optimal way.”

But Redmond questioned the taxpayers association’s “simple math.” She said you can’t just say you’ll remove special-education students from their self-contained classrooms.

As for the trailers, Redmond said, Wake wouldn’t gain much capacity because the 1,100 units already are in use. A scenario in which Wake would have reduced the number of units was dropped because the construction program would have been too expensive.

If Wake adds more modulars because the bond issue fails, Larry Nilles said, it would send a wrong message to teachers at a time when they’re already dealing with issues such as no pay raises, larger class sizes and fewer teacher assistants. Nilles, president of the Wake County chapter of the N.C. Association of Educators, said trailers don’t provide the best educational experience.

“Educators already feel like some people have it out for them,” he said. “If the bond is defeated, they will feel the general public has it out for them.”

Can schools do without this year?

Since the 1976 merger of the Wake County and Raleigh City school systems, voters have approved seven of the eight school bond issues.

The one defeat came in 1999 when voters overwhelmingly rejected a $650 million bond issue. A scaled-back $500 million bond issue was approved by voters in 2000.

School board member Bill Fletcher, who was on the board in 1999, said the county can’t afford a similar setback.

“Many of our schools are at the point where they’re getting too crowded to be safe, and instruction has been hampered,” he said.

But former school board Chairman Ron Margiotta told members of the taxpayers association last week that rejecting the bonds would force school and county leaders to come up with a more “reasonable” plan.

The leaders of the taxpayers association say the school system can get by for the next few years by using $129.9 million in cash the county has on hand for school construction and $43.8 million in previously issued school bonds.

Jones said the $173 million would be enough to cover renovations and repairs “that actually need to be done.” In a few years when the economy improves, he said, they can look at coming back with “a realistic request” for a bond issue.

“We think the school system will get by,” he said. “They’re going to tighten their belt maybe a little bit and focus on academics. As new buildings are needed, we feel the public will support the need for it. It just isn’t that time now.”

But Sutton said Wake’s growth means that waiting two or three years if the bond issue is defeated is not an option. School construction staff say that it can take three to five years to open a school from the time it takes to acquire the site, determine the plans, get permitting approval and complete construction.

“We don’t have the luxury of waiting around, given how long it takes to build a school,” Sutton said. “Schools don’t just come out of the ground.”