School bond foes, supporters trade arguments

August 8, 2013 

  • Voters to voice choice in October

    Wake County voters will face a ballot item Oct. 8 on whether they are willing to foot the bill for $810 million in bonds for new and renovated schools and other educational improvements. The county Board of Commissioners voted last month to proceed with the bond referendum that, if approved, would provide the bulk of the money for nearly $940 million in projects.

The Wake County Taxpayers Association has fired the first public shot against the $810 million school bond issue that will appear before voters in October. And supporters fired right back, asserting that approval of the bond is essential to meeting the needs of school-system growth.

The nonprofit taxpayers group, which has aligned itself against tax increases in Wake since forming in 1994, voted recently to oppose the measure, said board Chairman Ed Jones, a Raleigh businessman. The group says the Wake system should make better use of existing space, including portable classrooms. The association further says that growth projections don’t take into account the number of students leaving the public system for charter, private and home schooling.

“We didn’t take an unofficial position until we had all the facts,” Jones said Tuesday, citing an analysis by retired consultant Anthony Pecoraro, the group’s vice president of external affairs. “The analysis that he has come up with is that now, and in the near future, we do not need additional buildings. We have plenty of classroom space if the system uses the classroom space efficiently.”

School board Chairman Keith Sutton and Phil Zachary, president of Curtis Media Group and one of three chairs of a group supporting the bond, strongly disputed the group’s findings.

“The need is clear,” Sutton said. “We’re still growing by 3,000 new students in a slow economy. When the economy was robust, we were growing by 5,000 to 7,000 students.”

Sutton said that while he hasn’t seen the taxpayers association’s numbers, school facility staff have looked at them and reached a different conclusion.

“They’re just dead wrong,” Sutton said of the group’s numbers.

Pecoraro said his analysis is based in part on the existence of more than 600 portable classrooms, which he said could provide seats for an estimated 15,000 students. The analysis did not examine whether reassignment would be necessary to make best use of seats throughout the system.

“Reassignment is something that happens every September, so there’s nothing new about that,” Pecoraro said.

Zachary said that the bond money requested, with an accompanying tax increase of about $145 on an average home, will not only pay for building schools, but also for new equipment needed for schools to keep pace with an evolving society.

“We can’t teach kids with blackboards when they are sitting there with iPhones in their backpacks,” he said. “It’s incredibly short-sighted to predict what we will need or what we won’t need.”

The taxpayers association takes the position that Wake County schools should not be increasing the county’s overall indebtedness even if the amount proposed wouldn’t affect its bond rating.

“You don’t spend money on things that you don’t need, just because it doesn’t affect your credit rating,” Pecoraro said.

Sutton said passing the bond is the responsible thing to do to ensure that Wake doesn’t fall behind in capacity, as it did after a school bond failed in 1999.

“To say that we don’t need it is irresponsible,” he said.

Staff writer T. Keung Hui contributed to this story.

Goldsmith: 919-829-8929

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