Education

Wake County bond would renovate – or replace – 11 schools. Is it worth $279 million?

Fuquay-Varina High School principal Jonathan Enns watches as students leave at the end of the school day on Oct. 9. 2018. Enns says a $111.8 million renovation planned for the school will help address issues such as how the many different buildings on campus pose security and circulation issues.
Fuquay-Varina High School principal Jonathan Enns watches as students leave at the end of the school day on Oct. 9. 2018. Enns says a $111.8 million renovation planned for the school will help address issues such as how the many different buildings on campus pose security and circulation issues. khui@newsobserver.com

The fate of a plan to borrow more than a half-billion dollars to pay for Wake County school construction projects could depend on how willing voters are to support spending money to fix and rebuild aging school buildings.

Wake County voters will decide this fall on a $548 million school construction bond referendum that will provide money over the next two years to help build seven new schools, renovate 11 existing schools and fund other projects. The majority of the bond money would go toward renovations, which in some cases would mean demolishing existing buildings and building a brand new school on the site.

Bond supporters say the renovations will provide better learning environments for students and help to recruit and retain the best teachers.

“The facilities at these older schools in Raleigh are not the same as the newer schools or the recently renovated schools,” said George York, co-chairman of the Friends of Wake County, the business-backed group formed to promote passage of the school bond.

“It’s not about really where the schools are in Wake County but are all the kids in Wake County getting an equal opportunity to learn,” York said in a phone interview.

But bond opponents contend on their website that Wake’s plan is wasting money by “bulldozing perfectly good schools just to rebuild them.”

“We also don’t believe in tearing down school buildings just to build a newer one on the same property is an effective use of our tax money,” Robb Ward, chairman of AgainstTheBonds.com, said in a statement. The group is backed by those who oppose raising property taxes like the Wake County Taxpayers Association.

The Wake school bond is one of three bond items on the Nov. 6 ballot in Wake County. Voters will also decide on a $349 million bond referendum to expand and renovate Wake Technical Community College’s facilities and a $120 million parks, greenways, recreation and open space bond referendum.

If all three ballot measures to borrow $1.1 billion are approved, it would result in a 3.8-cent increase to the county property tax rate. The Wake County school tax portion would be a 2.3-cent increase, or $62 more per year for the average Wake County home assessed at $270,000.

Bond supporters say that passing the referendum is the cheapest way to pay for Wake’s capital needs. Opponents say enough is enough after multiple years of property tax rate increases, largely to allow for increases in school funding.

Bond opponents have set their sights on the $279 million in renovations that would be provided by the school bonds.

Ward pointed to the $71 million being spent to rebuild East Wake Middle School near Knightdale. The school bond includes $5.4 million for the project.

East Wake was constructed in 1989, and it’s unusual for the district to replace a school less than 40 years old. School leaders say the renovations are needed to increase the number of students the school can hold and address a variety of issues such as security and accessibility.

Ward says East Wake is “structurally sound” and “only needs some repairs and a new roof.”

“My home is over 27 years old, and I would never consider tearing it down and rebuilding it, and I don’t believe anyone else with a home that old would consider doing the same, and even if I did I wouldn’t demand that my neighbors pay for MY NEGLECT,” Ward said in the statement.

School board member Don Agee, who has also criticized the East Wake renovation, has cited the renovations to try to turn against the school bond issue western Wake parents who are upset about student assignment. He said Wake isn’t spending enough money on building new schools.

“If we look currently at what is on the slate to be done for construction work, you’ll see hundreds of millions of dollars being spent within Raleigh to add just a few seats to existing school facilities,” Agee told parents at the Oct. 2 school board meeting. “...But if we’re spending the money in Raleigh it’s not paying for the schools that you need where you live.”

Among the schools that would get bond money for renovations is West Millbrook Middle School in Raleigh, where parents have complained about problems such as sewage leaking into hallways and the smell of urine in buildings.

Several parents and students at West Millbrook Middle School in Raleigh asked the Wake County school board on April 10, 2018 to speed up the start of planned renovations. Speakers said the 42-year-old campus is falling apart.

All the other school board members back the school bond referendum.

“Board member Don Agee spoke AGAINST renovating Raleigh schools at last night’s board meeting,” school board member Christine Kushner tweeted. “I strongly support renovating public assets, public school buildings throughout @WCPSS. Vote “YES” for @WakeSchoolBond for equity, fairness — for our students!”

But the school that would get the most money in the bond is Fuquay-Varina High School. Of the $111.8 million budgeted for renovating and rebuilding Fuquay-Varina High, the school bond would provide $69.7 million.

Jonathan Enns, principal of Fuquay-Varina High, said conditions at the more than 40-year-old school are having a negative impact on student learning and school safety. He said the small classrooms limit what programs he can offer and how many students can take certain classes.

At a time when there are fears of school shootings, Enns said security is an issue, especially with students traveling among as many as 10 buildings on campus with multiple access points. The renovation would put students within one building.

“We just don’t have a facility that is designed with respect to 2018 in mind so far as what we know societally,” Enns said in an interview at the school.

In Fuquay-Varina, at least, Enns said he’s confident the community understands what passing the school bond would mean to the school’s 2,200 students.

“I have to believe that we understand that what’s important for our community is education. Period,” Enns said. “They look at us as a long-term investment. That’s the why. They know the value of making sure our kids are prepared for that next step.”

Where the money would go: new schools

Southlakes Elementary (Occupancy: Aug. 2020)

Middle school in Fuquay Varina (Occupancy: Aug. 2022)

Elementary school in Apex (Occupancy: Aug. 2022)

Elementary school in southwest Wake County (Occupancy: Aug. 2023)*

Elementary school in southwest Wake County (Occupancy: Aug. 2023)*

High school in southwest Wake County (Occupancy: Aug. 2024)*

Elementary school (not identified)

*Requires future capital funding

Where the money would go: renovations

Wiley Elementary

Stough Elementary

East Wake Middle

Conn Elementary

Fuquay Varina High

Fuller Elementary

York Elementary

Swift Creek Elementary

West Millbrook Middle

Baucom Elementary

Middle school (not identified)

Source: Wake County Public School System
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