Local News

Supporters Claim Victory For Wake School Bond

Posted November 7, 2006 11:58 a.m. EST
Updated December 20, 2006 2:36 p.m. EST

— Wake County voters Tuesday embraced a controversial and fiercely debated $970 million school construction bond package that public school system leaders say is needed to help accommodate a booming student population.

Unofficial results show that with 99 percent of precincts reporting, 53 percent of voters cast ballots in favor of the school bond -- 104,717 votes -- while 47 percent voted against it -- 92,810 votes.

"It is a huge relief," said Wake County Board of Education Chairwoman Patti Head. "We needed this bond. We need the facilities with the children coming. They're already here."

The bond package will allow 17 new schools to open between 2008 and 2011, major renovations at 13 existing schools and about 100 repair jobs. It will also help cover six new ninth-grade centers to ease overcrowding at high schools and buy land to build 13 additional schools from 2011 to 2013.

School system leaders say the bond is the best and quickest way to start building schools. A news conference is scheduled for Wednesday morning to discuss the bond and construction projects that could start almost immediately.

The approved bond will also mean a property-tax increase for Wake County residents. For example, owners of a $250,000 home will pay an estimated $117.50 more in taxes each year.

"Clearly, the pro-bond side won in the arena of public idea," said Dallas Woodhouse with the North Carolina chapter of Americans for Prosperity, which opposes the bond. "And I say again: This was never about winning or losing. It was about having a good fundamental debate about the school system, and I think the school system has won because of that and will be better."

The bond issue had been one of the most watched races this election year with very vocal opponents organizing efforts to stop the bond because of tax reasons and mandatory year-round schools.

"I believe that we made a statement, and I think we made a heck of a lot of points that have to be recognized," said school board member Ron Margiotta, who hosted a post-election gathering for Stop Mandatory Year-Round, which opposed the bond. "And when the fireworks stop and when the year-round schedule takes place, people will realize how big of an effect year-round schools are going to have on them."

Supporters launched a statewide marketing campaign across to county get the bond passed. Both sides had said they felt confident that voters would cast ballots in their favor.

"When you are competing with another group that raised a half a million (dollars), and we have only raised about a thousand (dollars), it's hard to compete," Margiotta said Tuesday night. "We've considered it a David vs. Goliath situation from the beginning."

Last month, in a WRAL-TV/News & Observer poll, 54 percent of people who identified themselves as likely voters said they opposed the bond while 35 percent said they supported it. That survey, conducted by Research 2000 of Rockville, Md., had a margin of error of 4 percent.

Wake County voters told poll-takers that the potential taxes were too high and the incentives too low to support the bond. Bond supporters maintained that a lot could happen to sway voters' opinions in the two weeks between when the poll was taken and the election.

Bond proponents say they will now have to reach out to opponents to move forward.

"The real work is probably bringing all the folks together who have opinions on the subject, whether we've agreed or disagreed," Bill Atkinson, co-chairman of Friends of Wake County, which supported the bond, said Tuesday night. "Tomorrow morning, we need to find common ground."

"We have to get this building done," said Francis DeLuca, director of the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity. "It's a good thing we're moving forward on this, but let's continue with the talking and the moving forward on reform."

The impact of the bond issue also might have spread to Wake County commissioner races. Republican incumbents Joe Bryan and Tony Gurley were ahead in their re-election bids late Tuesday with 99 percent of precincts reporting, while incumbent Phil Jeffreys, who voted against putting the bond on the ballot, trailed Democratic challenger Lindy Brown, who supported the bond.

More than 128,000 students are enrolled in the Wake County Public School System for the 2006-2007 school year -- an increase of 7,556 students from the previous year -- putting it on track to become the largest school system in North Carolina. Projections add about 40,000 more students in the next five years.

Opponents had argued that by voting against the bond, school and county leaders would be forced to consider other alternatives, such as: private-public partnerships (in which a private developer builds schools and the school system leases the building), more charter schools, lower bond amounts and public-private partnerships. School leaders had argued that those alternatives are not immediate enough.