A $2.5-billion-dollar bond referendum is slated to be placed on the November ballot this year, as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) looks for support to fund 30 different projects in the school district.

According to CMS, the bond seeks to improve educational environments, offer more academic options, alleviate overcrowding, and renovate and replace aging CMS facilities, all of which support its overall goal of providing benefits for students and schools.

The Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners recently approved the ballot referendum in a 5-3 vote, with some members, like Commissioner Pat Cotham, voicing concerns over the bond due to the expectation that it will raise taxes on Mecklenburg County residents.

School district leaders understand the large price tag of the bond and the tax increase it will generate, but argue that the various projects are much needed in order to help the district.

“It’s not only are we getting new building and better environment, it impacts students efficiency in the classroom and safety and wellbeing of our students,” Dennis Lacaria, Executive Director of facilities and real estate planning said in response to questions on the bond.

In an emailed statement to Carolina Journal, Lisa Cline, who serves on the CMS school board as representative for District 5, said she believes the funding is necessary for CMS.

“CMS is asking for an historic amount of general obligation bonds to fund its capital needs- 2.5 billion,” said Cline. “It is greatly needed.”

“The 30 projects in this bond address the most severe needs in our district,” she added. “For example, we still have one elementary school on well water and not on a municipal sewer system. The bond will also address other elementary schools that have rooms without windows and poor HVAC systems. As Mecklenburg County continues to grow, we must provide schools that are safe and meet 21st century standards for effective learning environments.”

CMS also enlisted the help of well-known NC political consultants to assist with passing the referendum.

In 2017, a bond referendum for CMS was passed totaling $922 million. Reporting from earlier this year indicated that $119.6 million remains to fulfill 15 projects from the 2017 bond.

Tax burdens and student outcomes

Others are not so sure the bond is appropriate given the financial burden it entails along with doubts over whether the projects will facilitate improved student performance.

“In short, the bond as requested is unnecessary and irresponsible,” former CMS school board member Sean Strain told CJ.

“The CMS staff, and the students CMS is honored to serve, absolutely require and deserve continued capital investment in the facilities and infrastructure supporting the 17th largest school district in the country,” he continued. “That said, this bond referendum is 150 percent larger than that which was requested 6 years ago – a bond that was passed and which delivery has subsequently fallen short of what was promised. A good example being the district’s decision after the fact to reduce the high school sizes they had promised by 20 percent.”

From a student outcome perspective, data analysis for the 2022-23 school year revealed that 58 of the 171 schools in the CMS district are low-performing, which is eight more than last year. Testing scores from reading in grades 3-8 also showed 52.3 percent of students tested were not proficient.

“Math and language literacy rates have not fallen due to lack of capital investment,” said Strain. “Nor would this bond, even if delivered as promised, make a dent in those faces and futures that are being neglected due to cultural issues – low expectations, lack of accountability, and poor leadership.

Former Charlotte City Council at Large candidate David Merrill told CJ in an interview that while CMS certainly requires better infrastructure and student outcomes, the bond referendum is too costly for taxpayers.

“We’re facing yet another tax increase, he said. “The General Assembly recently implemented school choice to provide the best quality education available, allowing parents to decide how and where they want their children educated. Looking at the school bond, this is going to be yet another tax increase. We just had an increase four years ago and recently had another property tax increase, so we’re not going to be able to be net zero on our budget. This is a bald-faced attempt by CMS to circumvent the voters and the NCGA in providing school choice vouchers.”

Merrill also called attention to the previous bond measure passed six years ago.

“When you look at the statistics, the last bond was passed six years ago and was around one billion dollars. Not all of the revenue or objectives from that original bond have been met, said Merrill. “When you compare the student body today to what it was six years ago, our student population is slightly smaller and our test scores are worse. Now, they’re asking for 2.5 times more than what they were asking for six years ago with no improved results. Obviously, we do need to invest in the infrastructure of our schools. We need to make sure that our kids have clean, healthy, and safe places to learn. There are schools that are still using well water and septic tanks instead of city or county water. This bond is looking at almost 50 million in design only work, so there’s a lot of mismanagement. Nobody is suggesting that we should not invest in our schools, but asking for $2.5 billion dollars is outside of the realm of reasonable.”