Wake County voters to decide school bond question
Posted September 6, 2013
Updated September 9, 2013
Raleigh, N.C. — Voters deciding whether Wake County should borrow $810 million for school construction and renovation are being pushed by adversaries who say the county can't afford more bond debt and pulled by advocates who say the state cannot afford to delay building schools.
"It's an obligation of Wake County and her citizens to find a seat for every child," said Billie Redmond, CEO of TradeMark Properties, who is co-chairing Friends of Wake County, which is advocating for the bond.
Wake County's student population has been growing steadily over the past decade, she said, and there's every reason to think it will continue to do so.
"We think it's too much," said Ed Jones of the Wake County Taxpayers Association. "We probably would oppose any bond at this point because we don't feel that a new bond is needed."
Jones said there's no reason for Wake County taxpayers to see their annual assessments go up when Wake County schools can use temporary classrooms and other methods to house students.
Redmond and Jones appeared on the Sept. 7 edition of WRAL's "On the Record" with anchor David Crabtree. On the Record: Debate rages over Wake schools bond
The planned $810 million in borrowing would be part of an overall $939.9 million building program. If approved by voters, it would help build two high schools, three middle schools and 11 elementary schools, renovate six more schools and pay for dozens of smaller school projects. The borrowed money would also pay for technology upgrades, schools security and setting aside land for future schools.
Here's more information about the referendum.
Oct. 8 is Election Day for the Wake County Board of Education, City of Raleigh and Town of Cary. It is also the date set for voters to decide the Wake County schools bond and a City of Raleigh transportation bond.
According to the Wake County Board of Elections, Sept. 13 is the deadline to register to vote for the Oct. 8 election.
Early voting for the Oct. 8 election begins Sept. 19.
To check your voter registration and find a sample ballot, log on to the State Board of Elections website.
The language on the ballot will read: "Shall the order adopted on July 15, 2013, authorizing not exceeding $810,000,000 SCHOOL BONDS, plus interest, of the County of Wake, North Carolina, for the purpose of providing funds, together with any other available funds, for constructing, expanding and renovating school buildings and other school facilities in said County, and the acquisition of related land, rights of way and equipment, and providing that additional taxes may be levied in an amount sufficient to pay the principal of and interest on the bonds, be approved?"
Voters will be asked to choose "yes" or "no."
Wake County raises the bulk of its revenues through property taxes. The current property tax rate is 53.4 cents per $100 of assessed value. So the owner of a $200,000 home would pay $1,068 in Wake County property taxes this year. (A home valued at $100,000 would pay half that, or $534). For renters, the increase will likely be passed along to tenants.
According to the Wake County Finance Department, borrowing $810 million will require a total of 5.53 cents of property tax increase. So the owner of a $200,000 home would see his property tax bill increase by $110.60 to $1,178.60, a 9.4 percent increase in the county tax bill. (The owner of a home valued at $100,000 would see an increase of $55.30 to $589.30).
In addition to Wake County taxes, residents of cities and towns pay additional property taxes, although they would not be affected by the school bond.
It depends on who you ask. When it came out against the school bond, representatives of the Wake County Taxpayers Association said they were worried spending would unnecessarily increase taxes and put the county's AAA bond rating at risk.
Redmond argued that good management of a 2006 bond has helped keep the county's bond rating, the highest offered by the three major rating agencies, and that the county has the fiscal wherewithal to borrow more.
In North Carolina, local government borrowing is overseen by the Local Government Commission. The commissions guidelines for borrowing say that a county should not owe more money than would be equivalent to 8 percent of the county's assessed property value. If voters approve the new debt, the county would be at 2.5 percent of assessed value, well below that threshold. However, it is worth noting, among counties with AAA bond ratings of similar sizes, Wake County's ratio of debt to assessed value would be the second highest in the country, behind Guilford County, N.C.
Wake County will require formal approval from the Local Government Commission before the bonds could be issued.
"The Local Government Commission staff met with Wake County staff, their bond counsel and financial adviser in a pre-application meeting on June 12," said Schorr Johnson, a spokesman for the commission. The commission is scheduled to review the application on Sept. 10. Click here to view the summary information submitted by the county.
The taxpayers association would say no.
Jones told Crabtree during this week's "On the Record" that the school system should handle what may be temporary gluts in students with temporary classrooms.
"The school system could add a mobile classroom. The need may be temporary, it may be only for a few years," he said.
Redmond replied by pointing out that 17 percent of Wake County students already have classes in temporary classrooms.
"I'm a girl from the South. We call them trailers," she said.
Jones and the taxpayers association pointed to growth estimates from 2006, 2007 and 2008 that predicted Wake County would be educating nearly 200,000 students by now. Those predictions, he said, didn't come to pass.
Redmond pointed out that those estimates were made in the years before the most recent recession, when a great number of predictions turned out to be wrong. And, she pointed out, the schools have grown by roughly 2 percent a year even during the slow economy.
"It's not an overreach to say we're going to continue to grow at 2 percent a year," she told Crabtree.
* Overall campus capacity includes temporary classrooms. In the 2012-13 school year, the overall campus capacity is 157,186 students, including 1,136 temporary classrooms. Source: Wake County Schools.
Jones argued that Wake County's own numbers showed the county had more classroom space than it needed. However, Redmond argued that those classroom spaces are not always located in the right grades or in areas where the population is growing the fastest. A family from Apex, she said, is not going to want to send its students to Rolesville just because that's where the newest school with the most space happens to be.
And, Redmond said, it can take up to two years to build a school.
"We can't completely wait until we have a need for a seat," she said.
The Wake County Republican Party has announced it will oppose the school bond. The Wake County Democratic Party has endorsed the bond, urging supporters to vote "yes."
Strictly speaking, a bond is not a partisan issue. And it is worth noting that the Republican-controlled Wake County Board of Commissioners voted to put the bond issue on the ballot at the behest of the Wake County School Board, which is putative nonpartisan but controlled by registered Democrats.
The candidates for Raleigh mayor, city council and four seats on the Wake County Board of Education will take questions and meet the public at a non-partisan series of forums later this month.
At each forum, county staff will share information about the countywide school bond proposal.
All forums are from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., and each will be made available LIVE on WRAL.com.