Wake County school board concerned about having enough bond money

Wake County school board members expressed worries Wednesday that they may not have enough money to keep up with growth in the next few years if a school construction bond referendum isn’t placed on the ballot this year.

The Wake County Board of Commissioners are considering switching to a new funding formula that would pay for school construction with a mixture of bonds that require voter approval and bonds that don’t. Commissioners could use this new approach if they issue limited-obligation bonds in lieu of putting a school bond referendum on the November ballot.

Details of the new model were shared at a joint meeting of the school board and commissioners last week, where county staff said commissioners could issue $440 million over the next two years to pay for new school construction projects. But school administrators project the district will need an average of $358.9 million a year to keep up with growth bringing 2,000 new students a year.

Under a state law approved in 2014, if commissioners skip a school bond referendum this year they’d have to wait until 2018 to hold one.

“With the proposed new funding formula, are we going to have enough in the short term to get us through this phase without a (bond referendum to 2018) to keep moving with our construction projects?” school board Chairman Tom Benton said at Wednesday’s facilities committee meeting. “My concern is if we’re not careful, are we going to have a slowdown and then have to pick up again?”

School board member Susan Evans quickly added that “I think we all share those concerns.”

If commissioners skip a school bond, the only referendum on the November ballot would be one asking voter approval to raise sales taxes by a half cent to help fund the $2.3 billion Wake Transit Plan.

Since the joint meeting, Commissioners Sig Huchinson and Jessica Holmes have publicly said the county should consider having both a school bond referendum and a transit referendum this year. Commissioner John Burns tweeted on Wednesday that “I will keep my mind and the County’s options open.”

With the funding issue unresolved, school board members continued to work Wednesday on how to determine which projects to request.

The facilities committee reviewed the list of assumptions that will be used to develop the building program. New assumptions include:

▪ Reducing the number of special-education classrooms to reflect efforts to include those students more often in general education classrooms;

▪ Adding collaborative learning spaces – areas where students could work in small or large groups – to all new schools;

▪ Offering more career education (CTE) programs at high schools that can teach students work skills;

▪ Looking for bigger school sites to accommodate issues such as regulatory demands on stormwater drainage and keeping traffic off public streets.

In March, the facilities committee is expected to go through the list of new schools and renovation projects that could be recommended for the new building program.

“Our job is to show what we need,” Benton said.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui