The Wake County school system could find itself with some tough choices if commissioners limit the amount of money provided for the next building program to avoid raising property taxes.
As noted in today’s article, the Wake County Board of Commissioners are considering skipping a school bond referendum this year to instead borrow a smaller amount for school projects that wouldn’t require voter approval. Commissioners are concerned a school bond that raises taxes could jeopardize voter approval of a November referendum to raise the sales-tax rate to help fund the $2.3 billion transit plan.
Firm numbers will be presented at Wednesday’s joint meeting of both boards, but preliminarily it looks like there’s $450 million over the next two years to cover all county capital needs, including the school system and Wake Tech.
The school system identified $2.2 billion in capital needs in 2013. The amount was reduced to a $994 million plan – largely financed by the $810 million bond referendum approved by voters.
Although enrollment growth has slowed since 2013, construction costs have also increased.
Renovations of Apex High School and Vandora Springs Elementary in Garner are basically a lock to be funded in the next building program. That’s because the work at both schools is tied into students temporarily relocating in August 2017 while their old campuses are torn down and rebuilt.
Wake already has some funding for Apex High and Vandora Springs, but around another $90 million would be needed to actually do the construction work.
But if the school system has less than $450 million for the next two years, the school board would have to weigh which other projects have to go now. Other projects could wait until after 2018 when another round of new funding could be provided.
For instance, how soon should the school board go ahead with other renovations that were partially funded in the 2013 building program? This includes projects at East Wake Middle School near Knightdale and Stough Elementary School in Raleigh.
Another issue is which new schools should be funded first. At this point, there’s no funding to open any new schools past August 2018.
The school board has also already issued contracts to design three new schools that would be funded from the next building program: a high school in Fuquay-Varina, a middle school near Bryan Road Elementary in Garner and a middle school near Alston Ridge Elementary in Cary.
Those three new schools would require around $160 million to build although school administrators say they’re not necessarily the ones that will start first.
The timing of that new high school would also impact renovations at Fuquay-Varina High School. Similar to what will happen with Apex High, the likely plan would be to relocate Fuquay-Varina High students to the new school while their campus is renovated.
The situation puts the school board in a potential bind in more ways than one. School board members individually support the transit plan and have had much better relations with the board of commissioners since Democrats gained majorities on both bodies.
School board Chairman Tom Benton said he understands that commissioners have to balance school and transit needs.
“Obviously the school system does not operate in a vacuum,” Benton said. “We are certainly aware there are numerous needs facing county government at this time.
“Although it is our job to make sure our needs are identified and recognized, the county commissioners ultimately have to balance the needs of the various departments they have to provide funding for.”
School board member Jim Martin said the county needs to invest in all parts of its infrastructure, including transit and K-12 education.
“There are limits to what the economy can handle,” Martin said. “We have to be cognizant of that. But we do have to look at our future growth. It’s not slowing down.
"It can’t be a choice of which child do you feed. If we want Wake County to be the great place it is, we have to invest in the infrastructure for it to continue.”