Raleigh, N.C. — The largest school bond in Wake County history could be on the ballot this year, if county commissioners and school board leaders can see eye-to-eye on the future of the school district.
Finding seats for 3,000 to 5,000 new students every year is becoming increasingly difficult, and Board of Commissioners Chairman Joe Bryan and Board of Education Chairman Keith Sutton agree that a construction plan is critical.
"There's like 16 elementaries (needed), five middles schools, six high schools, lots of renovations," Bryan said Tuesday.
"Capacity is key to our success," Sutton said. "Whatever plan or approach we put in place to address not only student reassignment but the growth will hinge on our capacity."
A bond referendum is inevitable, and Sutton said the Wake County Public School System likely needs more than $1 billion to build and renovate schools.
A bond that size could add as much as 8 cents to the tax rate for Wake County residents, so Bryan and Sutton said they plan to look for alternatives to ease the pinch, such as incremental steps.
"There may, in fact, be a series of smaller bonds and more frequent bonds, as opposed to one large bond," Sutton said.
In November 2006, Wake County taxpayers approved a $970 million school bond.
The two board also might need to reach some compromises before a new bond issue is put before voters.
For example, the school system has historically used bond money to build and operate schools, but in recent years, commissioners have discussed taking greater ownership of the district's schools.
"Since it is the taxpayers that are funding these schools, we'd like to be in charge of building them," Bryan said.
Sutton said he sees no reason for the school board to cede control.
The two chairmen said they will work hard to rebuild a relationship between their boards that has been strained in recent years.
"The main way to do that is through dialog and conversation," Sutton said. "Some of those conversations will be difficult, no question about that."
Both boards plan to meet monthly to determine the size and scope of the bond, and Bryan and Sutton said they hope to have some details worked out by March.
They said the biggest challenge will be winning over the public, and they are working to provide more stability for families with children in school after several years of upheaval in student assignment.
"I think it will take some time for the commissioners – for the public – to get history behind us," Bryan said. "We have to show a school bond issue would solve that issue and increase the awareness of stability for families."