Wake may de­lay its school bond vote

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Triangle & N.c. - BY T. KE­UNG HUI [email protected]­sob­server.com

Wake County vot­ers might not be asked to ap­prove a school con­struc­tion bond ref­er­en­dum this year, even though that would mean us­ing a more ex­pen­sive way to pay for school projects.

Wake County staff rec­om­mended Fri­day wait­ing un­til 2022 to put the next school con­struc­tion bond ref­er­en­dum on the bal­lot be­cause of how many items al­ready will be on the Novem­ber 2020 bal­lot. In­stead of a bond ref­er­en­dum this year, of­fi­cials want to use an al­ter­na­tive bor­row­ing method that would cost a half cent more on the prop­erty tax rate.

Com­mis­sioner Vickie Adam­son said that half cent dif­fer­ence would only mean $15 more a year in prop­erty taxes on a home with a $300,000 as­sessed prop­erty value.

“The dif­fer­ence is ba­si­cally no cost to home­own­ers, which we love,” Adam­son said at Fri­day’s re­treat plan­ning meet­ing.

Wake County vot­ers last ap­proved a school bond in 2018, when they over­whelm­ingly backed bor­row­ing $548 mil­lion. That year, vot­ers also ap­proved bor­row­ing $349.1 mil­lion for Wake Tech­ni­cal Com­mu­nity Col­lege projects and $120 mil­lion for parks, open space and recre­ation con­struc­tion.

SCHOOL POP­U­LA­TION GROWTH SLOW­ING

Growth has slowed since 2018 in the Wake County school sys­tem, with plan­ners point­ing to is­sues such as an aging pop­u­la­tion, fewer chil­dren be­ing born and com­pe­ti­tion from other school op­tions. En­roll­ment pro­jec­tions re­leased this week have the district grow­ing by 33 stu­dents this fall and 1,177 stu­dents by fall 2026.

But school lead­ers say there are still many older schools that need ren­o­va­tions. They also point to how some ar­eas lack seats be­cause growth is still oc­cur­ring there.

“Our school build­ings that the tax­pay­ers have paid for are still go­ing to age,” Greg Ford, chair­man of the Board of Com­mis­sion­ers, said in an in­ter­view. “They need to be rein­vested in to make sure they are at the stan­dards we want stu­dents and teach­ers to have. We still have to build schools in high-growth ar­eas.”

Un­der state law, Wake County can only hold bond votes in years with an elec­tion where all the polling places are open at once. Dur­ing odd num­ber years, in­di­vid­ual Wake cities and towns don’t all vote on the same day.

This means that if there’s no bond vote this year then county lead­ers would have to wait un­til 2022.

In 2016, the school sys­tem and county agreed to cre­ate a seven-year con­struc­tion pro­gram that’s up­dated an­nu­ally, The as­sump­tion had been that there would be a $594 mil­lion school bond ref­er­en­dum on this year’s bal­lot.

DIF­FER­ENT OP­TIONS TO PAY FOR SCHOOL CON­STRUC­TION

The county has the op­tion of us­ing gen­eral obli­ga­tion bonds, which re­quire voter ap­proval but have lower in­ter­est rates be­cause the bor­row­ing is backed by the county’s tax­ing author­ity. An­other op­tion is to use lim­ited obli­ga­tion bonds, which don’t re­quire a ref­er­en­dum and are backed by county as­sets, mak­ing them more ex­pen­sive.

County staff say that us­ing the lim­ited obli­ga­tion bonds would re­sult in “min­i­mal cost dif­fer­ence” of a 1/2 cent more on the prop­erty tax rate be­gin­ning in 2024. They also say there would be no dif­fer­ence in the amount of money avail­able for school projects.

If a bond ref­er­en­dum was held this year, county staff said there would be “bal­lot crowd­ing” in Novem­ber be­cause of the pres­i­den­tial, state and lo­cal elec­tions. Raleigh may also put hous­ing and parks bonds on the fall bal­lot.

Com­mis­sioner Sig Hutchin­son said the cost dif­fer­ence be­tween the two op­tions is min­i­mal and that not putting a school bond on the bal­lot would help Raleigh’s bond ef­forts.

“We are part of a county with part­ners and par­tic­u­larly with the City of Raleigh, I think they have been great part­ners with what they’re try­ing to do,” Hutchin­son said. “I think that’s im­por­tant in terms of giv­ing them the great­est op­por­tu­nity to be suc­cess­ful.”

Ford said that he’s also lean­ing to­ward us­ing the lim­ited obli­ga­tion bonds. But he said that help­ing Raleigh should be sec­ondary to mak­ing sure that the school needs are met.

“We do want to be mind­ful of sim­i­lar ef­forts of our mu­nic­i­pal part­ners do­ing things that are in line with our goals like af­ford­able hous­ing and parks and open space,” Ford said. “But in my opinion, I don’t know that this de­ci­sion should be based on what one mu­nic­i­pal­ity or an­other is go­ing to do.”

Com­mis­sion­ers agreed Fri­day to hold on a de­ci­sion un­til March. This will give them time to talk with the school board first.

“We want to make sure our col­leagues on the school board are com­fort­able with the bud­get as­sump­tions, that we can cross-check the cap­i­tal needs as we see them and just make sure we’re all on the same page,” said Ford, a former Wake prin­ci­pal.

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