East Wake votes no on bond, but yes for bond-supporting school board candidate

mhankerson@newsobserver.comOctober 15, 2013 

— Preliminary numbers calculated from last week’s election showed a majority of voters in eastern Wake County voted against the school bond – but bond-supporting candidate Tom Benton was re-elected to the District 1 school board seat.

Part of it is strictly numbers: all of District 1 was voting for the candidate,while the whole county voted on the $810 million bond.

Between Knightdale, Zebulon and Wendell, 2,544 voted no on the school bond. The numbers don’t include absentee or one-stop voting. Numbers for the candidates are not available on a town-by-town basis, but Benton only beat his opponent, Don McIntyre, by 322 votes.

Benton was an outspoken supporter of the bond but McIntyre had his reservations. When the campaign season started, McIntyre did not support the $810 million bond. About a week before Election Day, McIntyre released a statement saying he did support the bond but he did not want to leave the money in the hands of the current Board of Education.

Although the bond fell short in eastern Wake County, N.C. State political science professor Andrew Taylor said voters likely voted against the bond, but supported the candidate who favored it, because they knew more about the bond plan than they did the candidates.

“(Those votes) made the difference in a close race,” Taylor said. “It may have been because of a lack of information.”

Since the bond affected all districts in Wake County, Taylor said there were probably more resources for voters to find information about the bond than there was to learn about the candidates.

Still split over bond use

Benton said he thinks there may have been a misunderstanding about how the bond program works.

“None of that money becomes available until after July 1,” Benton said. “This allows county commissioners to sell bonds up to that amount over the next four years.”

Benton said the board and county commissioners will decide what projects are first-priority over the next year and then sell bonds as the money is needed.

The bond debt will raise taxes in Wake County, which prompted the Wake County Taxpayers Association (WCTA) tolobby for no votes on the referendum.

WCTA Chairman Ed Jones said the group knows schools in Wake County need help, but he wants to see officials taking care of what already exists rather than creating new schools.

“We are all for … maintaining the property you already have and making sure it’s safe and comfortable for the teachers. That doesn’t mean it needs to be a grandiose, like a palace,” Jones said.

Jones is also skeptical of bondsupporters’ claim that the school system is expected to grow by 20,000 students in the next four years. He said he thinks there are enough seats in Wake County to keep up with the growth.

“The seats are in the wrong place, but that’s because of poor planning,” he said.

In 2006, there was a similar growth projection – but the students never came. Growth slowed down during the 2008 recession. Now, Benton said, it’s important to address the needs of the school system.

The bond will cost Wake families about $145 more per year in taxes, an increase that Jones said would be acceptable if the money was handled correctly.

“Our position all the time was the schools needed repairs and remodeling and we are for those repairs and remodeling jobs that need to be done. The problem that we have seen is that over the years, the school system has not done a good job of repairing and maintaining the schools, they’ve been more focused on adding other schools,” he said.

Currently, there is no timeline for what projects will be completed when. In Eastern Wake, the bond would pay for renovations at Rolesville Elementary and East Wake Middle School. The money would also be used to begin construction on a new middle school north of Knightdale and acquiring land to build three new elementary schools just outside the western limits of Knightdale.

The total cost of those projects, according to estimates by the Wake County Public School System, would be close to $139 million.

“I don’t want my taxes to go up, but on the other hand there are critical needs facing the county and by law we have to provide seats,” Benton said. “The bond issue is the cheapest way to do that.”

Democrats hold on to board

Even though voters may have been interested in the bond, Taylor said the race for open seats on the board were the quietestschool board races he’s seen since 2007.

With information about a policy but not necessarily a candidate, it would be easy for voters to vote in seemingly opposing ways, Taylor said.

Regardless of the outcome of this year’s school board race, the general makeup of the board wouldn’t have changed. That’s one reason why it may have gotten less attention than the bond, Taylor said.

“Party control of the board was not going to be contested so it wasn’t up for grabs,” Taylor said. “Democrats had a majority (and) they were going to maintain majority afterward.”

Before Election Day, Wake County’s school board had five Democrats, three Republicans and one member – Kevin Hill, who represents North Raleigh – listed as unaffiliated.

After the election, Democrats still hold a majority and edged out the board’s two Republicans. John Tedesco, who represented southeastern Wake County, did not seek re-election. Democratic candidate Monika Johnson-Hostler won by about 8 percentage points.

In District 7, which covers southwest Raleigh and Morrisville, Deborah Prickett lost to Democrat Zora Felton.

Wake County’s school board races, which officially nonpartisan, have been uncharacteristically partisan compared to other school systems in the state.

“We have a county that is polarized among political lines and recently, in the last decade or so, we’ve had a very public debate about school policies,” Taylor said.

“A decade of fighting over those things has really sort of focused people on school baord policies so as a result we have competitive elections,” he said.

Hankerson: 919-829-4826; Twitter: @easternwakenews

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