Politics & Government

Wake school bond supporters feel confident. Opponents want to hold leaders accountable.

Workers use lifts to work on various areas at Oakview Elementary School in Holly Springs in this 2015 file photo. Wake County voters will decide on a $548 million school construction bond referendum on the Nov. 6, 2018 ballot.
Workers use lifts to work on various areas at Oakview Elementary School in Holly Springs in this 2015 file photo. Wake County voters will decide on a $548 million school construction bond referendum on the Nov. 6, 2018 ballot. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Wake County’s voters have been trending more liberal and Democratic, which could push a $548 million school construction bond referendum to victory on Tuesday.

A coalition of business leaders, PTA groups and liberal activists have thrown their support behind a school bond referendum that would help pay for seven new schools, 11 major renovations and other projects, such as school security upgrades and new computers. Based on internal polling data and high early voting turnout from Democrats, bond supporters say they’re confident but not cocky that the referendum will win voter approval.

“I feel like we’re in a good place,” said George York, co-chairman of Friends of Wake County, the business-backed group formed to promote passage of the school bond referendum. “Raleigh and Wake County get it that it’s a good thing for the citizens and children of Wake County. I feel we’ll be victorious next week.”

Conservative groups and parents who are upset with the latest student assignment proposal have mobilized to fight against the school bond. But bond opponents acknowledge that it will be an uphill battle defeating the school bonds.

“If we don’t win, at least we’re educating some people to understand that we need to hold our elected officials accountable,” said Robb Ward, chairman of Against The Bonds, a group fighting all three Wake County bond issues on the Nov. 6 ballot. “We need to let them know they need to be more fiscally responsible with our money.”

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.

The effect on taxes

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.

Wake County voters have historically backed school bonds, with 1999 being the exception. In the past 19 years, Wake County and other urban areas in North Carolina have become more politically liberal and willing to increase funding for public education.

All seven seats on the Wake County Board of Commissioners are now held by Democrats. The officially non-partisan school board also has a Democratic majority.

The Wake County Democratic Party has endorsed the school bond. With several GOP candidates split on the school bond, the Wake County Republican Party hasn’t taken a position on the referendum.

“We support our candidates, some of whom have a different and nuanced view on the bond and we want people to talk with the candidates directly,” said Charles Hellwig, chairman of the Wake County Republican Party.

The school bond has gotten crossover support from Republicans, particularly in Raleigh and Cary, according to Brad Crone, a campaign consultant for Friends of Wake, He also said the school bond has strong support from Democrats, who accounted as of Thursday for 45 percent of the early vote turnout in Wake County, and from unaffiliated voters.

But since nothing is certain until the last ballot is cast Tuesday night, both sides plan to remain active.

Campaign finance reports show that the Friends of Wake have raised $199,000 to promote a message that passing the bond is the cheapest way to pay for school needs. Most of the money has come from the business community, with $25,000 donations coming from Capitol Broadcasting, Duke Energy, the N.C. Association of Realtors and SAS.

York, of Friends of Wake, said the financial support is the result of the business community realizing how important it is to provide good quality school facilities.

“They’ve got lots of employees and family members,” York said. “They’re going to be hiring lots of new people who will be coming to the area, and the schools are just so important for that quality of life and the happiness and confidence that it gives families.”

Ward said bond opponents have raised far less money to spread their message that taxpayers can’t afford to continue seeing higher property taxes and rising debt. (The group’s latest campaign finance report wasn’t online at the State Board of Elections as of Friday.)

“We need to stop giving blank checks to people because they’ve shown to us they’re not fiscally responsible with our hard-earned taxpayer money,” Ward said.

Opposition because of calendar

Bond opponents have been joined by some families in Morrisville who say they’ll vote against the school bond if the Wake County school system opens Parkside Elementary School next year on a year-round calendar. Families who want to stay on a traditional calendar are being given the option of going nine miles to Pleasant Grove Elementary in Cary or more than 20 miles to Powell Elementary in Raleigh.

“None of us are opposed to money going to the right cause,” said Sudhir Subramanian, one of the Morrisville parents who want the school to open on a traditional calendar. “If the school board needs money to build more schools, the majority of parents says it’s the right thing to do.

“But if you look at how events have panned out, it looks like something was conveniently misused where people are talking about the situation of the school bond. The school bond wouldn’t even be in the conversation if the board did the right thing.”

In contrast, 18 school PTAs and the Wake County PTA Council have passed resolutions supporting the school bond.

“The reason for the assignment plan is the overcrowding and growth in Wake County, so saying we’re not supporting the bond because we’re not getting the calendar we want is really counter-intuitive,” said Lisa Mead, Wake PTA Council advocacy chair.

County leaders have tried to limit opposition by not going with a school bond referendum of around $1 billion. They split it into two smaller school bond votes, one this year and the next in 2020.

“A 4-year bond would be roughly double what we’re trying to accomplish, and that’s a pretty significant number,” York said. “Not that $548 million is a bite-sized piece, but these are smaller, targeted bonds.”

If the school bond is defeated, county leaders will have to decide whether to find some other way to keep the ongoing 7-year, $2.4 billion school building program on schedule. Another option could be to do what happened after the bond was defeated in 1999, when school projects were scaled back.

“If the bond were to fail, this board would remain committed to build schools as constitutionally required in the most cost-effective way, which may or may not involve reevaluating our 7-year capital plan,” Jessica Holmes, chairwoman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners, said in a text.

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