Raleigh, N.C. — The Wake County Board of Commissioners and Board of Education met Thursday for the first of several joint meetings to begin ironing out details of a potential $1 billion bond referendum that would help build 25 schools in the county over the next 10 years.
The school board says school construction is needed to ease overcrowding and prepare the district for the projected influx of 3,000 to 5,000 students entering the school system each year.
Next school year, for example, the school district projects nearly 152,700 students – a 2 percent increase over the current student population. That projection growth is expected to continue each year until 2022.
While a bond referendum and tax increase for Wake County residents is inevitable, the exact amount – and who control the funds – is still up for debate.
A $1 billion bond could add as much as 8 cents to the tax rate for residents, so Board of Commissioners Chairman Joe Bryan and Board of Education Chairman Keith Sutton have agreed to look for alternatives to ease the pinch, such as incremental steps.
"I'm hoping we'll look at something incremental over a three-year period," Bryan told WRAL News Thursday. "This will require a tax increase, and we will be in contact with people on that."
Once both boards agree to a bond amount, they will likely need to reach some compromises before a new bond issue is put before voters.
They hope to come up with an amount by June.
Getting there, however, might prove difficult.
The Republican-controlled Board of Commissioners and Democratic-controlled school board have been apart for months – most notably over student assignment and the school board’s September firing of former Superintendent Tony Tata.
Some county commissioners say there's a lack of trust with the school board.
One thorny issue discussed Thursday was excess money in the school board's reserve fund. Typically, a portion is given back to the county, but school board members are considering a vote to keep it, instead.
"Hopefully, over the next six months, I can develop that trust," Commissioner Tony Gurley said. "Right now, I do not trust the school board to be fiscally responsible with the taxpayers' money."
"I don't know how he could make that assertion," Sutton said. "We have completely clean audits. We've annually received awards from local government for accounting practices."
Sutton says he is aware of the friction between the two boards.
He concedes they won't see eye-to-eye on everything, including the use of the reserve fund and the school bond.
"For every action, there are repercussions," Sutton said. "We'll deal with those as they come."