RALEIGH — Members of the Wake County Board of Commissioners and Board of Education temporarily put aside their differences Thursday to agree to aim for a $900 million school construction program for voters to approve this fall.
After examining spending proposals costing as little as $663.2 million to as much as $2.3 billion, members of both boards said a middle ground of about $900 million would be a reasonable amount. The exact amount of the bond request and list of projects to be paid for haven’t been determined, but initial estimates call for a $789 million school-construction bond that would raise the average Wake County homeowner’s property tax by more than $135 a year.
School board members said the $900 million figure isn’t ideal because it won’t fund enough new schools to keep up with growth. But school board Chairman Keith Sutton said $900 million “is not a drop in the bucket,” either.
“Obviously you don’t get everything you want,” Sutton said in an interview after the joint meeting. “Nine-hundred million is a strong step in that direction.”
School and county staff are looking at having two bond issues in the next three years: one this fall and the next in fall 2016. The last time a Wake school bond was on the ballot was in 2006, when voters approved a $970 million bond.
Both boards have been bickering about issues such as school funding and who should be in charge of school construction, even as they’ve met to hammer out the details of a bond issue for the Oct. 8 ballot.
Despite the economic uncertainty and the cloud caused by the boards’ disputes, community leaders said they think the public would be willing to support a school bond this year that raises taxes.
The Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, which has hosted the joint meetings, would be expected to lead the marketing campaigning for a school bond, as it has in the past.
“If the two boards can work together, it’s highly marketable,” said Harvey Schmitt, president of the chamber. “I have a high degree of confidence that the public will support a bond.”
School administrators on Thursday presented four scenarios of $663.2 million, $911.6 million, $1.1 billion and $2.3 billion in spending for new construction, renovations and other projects. The boards didn’t adopt any of the specific proposals, instead agreeing to work with a ballpark figure of $900 million.
County staff project that the cost of building and operating those new schools in the four scenarios would require a property tax rate increase of between four cents and 14.74 cents per $100 of assessed value.
School leaders acknowledged that the proposal to ask for $2.3 billion was unrealistic, while describing the $663.2 million plan as insufficient to keep up with the 3,000 new students enrolling each school year. Most of the attention focused on the middle two scenarios.
The $1.1 billion option would let the 150,000-student school district roughly maintain its current percentage of students in “temporary classrooms” such as trailers.
“We’re going to spend $1 billion and still be just as crowded as we are today,” school board member John Tedesco said.
The smaller, $911.6 million scenario would increase the percentage of elementary and middle school students in temporary classrooms. County administrators estimate it would require a $789 million bond with a tax increase of 5.14 cents, or $135.44 more a year on a $263,500 home. The remaining $122 million would come from other county revenue.
During Thursday’s meeting, in which some commissioners asked why proposed renovation projects would cost so much, Sutton said that the $911.6 million scenario seemed to be the one that both boards would be closest to accepting.
“If we have some sense of what our limits are, then we can do a much better job of making the tough decisions,” school board member Tom Benton said.
Joe Bryan, chairman of the commissioners, said that $900 million is an “appropriate range,” noting that it would reduce the program to less than $1 billion. He called for a voice vote on $900 million and received only positive responses.
“We need to reach a consensus of where we are now,” he said.
Committed to 2013
Also as part of the consensus, commissioners got school board members to agree to support putting a bond on this fall’s ballot. Amid the strained relations, some school board members had talked about delaying the bond vote until spring 2014.
“We will support a bond this year,” Sutton said. “We are committed to having a successful bond this year.”