A diverse group of young parents, senior citizens, education mavericks, and think tank analysts in Wake County have found themselves allied by a singular frustration: a public school system that they believe has abused their trust and mismanaged their money. The group dubbed itself Wake County Citizens for Quality Education, and has set its sights on defeating the county’s $970 million school bond referendum Nov. 7.
Their motivations for defeating the bond are as varied as the personal stories they shared at an anti-bond rally Oct. 11. For Todd Cox, the father of three young children, it was a matter of feeling “duped” by the Wake County school system when he moved his family from Maryland. The Coxes soon learned that their school, Green Hope Elementary, would be converted to a mandatory year-round calendar — despite the fact that nearby schools were under-capacity and one was even eliminating a year-round track altogether because of under-enrollment.
“It will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to convert Green Hope Elementary into a year-round school,” said Cox, who adds that the costly conversion would net the school 30 additional seats. “But there are literally hundreds of empty seats, right now, within a five-mile radius.” Cox cites Brier Creek Elementary, Carpenter Elementary, and Morrisville Elementary as three examples of nearby schools that are under capacity. “It is a clear picture that the Board is not planning correctly,” he said.
Cox and like-minded parents say their part of the anti-bond coalition would readily support a smaller bond if it eliminated about $500 million earmarked either to construct or to convert 22 year-round schools. They also want the developers cashing in on Wake’s skyrocketing growth to pay impact fees, as, Cox said, they do in Maryland.
“Before that developer can scratch the surface of that land, he must have enough land for the school, and enough seats in that school so the children of that community can go there,” he said. After the bond vote, he said his group will continue to fight compulsory year-round schools and will press for impact fees.
The latter agenda put them at odds with some of their fellow bond opponents, who think such fees would unfairly place the burden of growth on certain parts of the county. Cox said this is exactly the effect of the proposed bond’s mandatory year-round conversions: “The Board of Education is telling us right now that 19 elementary schools and three middle schools will have to shoulder the burden of the entire county.” The bond will “pit neighbors against neighbors, and schools against schools,” he said.
Francis De Luca, of Americans for Prosperity, also expressed that concern. His group said mandatory year-round conversions were just one symptom of a school system that has sacrificed parental choice to bureaucracy.
“We have to do more building — we all agree to that,” said De Luca, who also supports a smaller school bond. “But we don’t support the tearing down of a perfectly good school like Aversboro [Elementary] with no health or safety concerns, and spending $22 million to replace it. Those are seeds that could go to increasing capacity and not mandatory year-round. It’s choices like that which have [resulted in] the Wake County School Board picking winners and losers.”
The proposed bond includes $100 million for renovations on five elementary schools for which the net increase in capacity would be 119 seats, De Luca said. “That’s about a million dollars per seat in renovations. A vote for the bond is a vote against reform.” After Nov. 7, De Luca’s group plans to lobby for such reforms as countywide school board elections and dividing the school system into smaller attendance-based zones where parents have a greater voice in their children’s education.
Other coalition members oppose the bond because they think it’s the tip of the iceberg. Wake County Taxpayers Association member Anthony Pecoraro said the school system has called for $5.6 billion of new funding in the next 10 years. “Nobody talks about these big numbers and that they’re going to need another bond in two years,” Pecoraro said.
Pecoraro’s association has focused on how the school system’s construction and renovation funds are to be allocated.
“The renovations they’re talking about just don’t make sense,” N.C. Rep. Russell Capps said. “They need to keep the school buildings in good repair and make sure they’re safe. But to take a good school and spend enough to build a new one and call that ‘renovation’, and not increase capacity — it’s foolish!”
Pecoraro and Capps said their group will continue to oppose such spending even after the bond vote. They expect that county commissioners will draw on $650 million in proceeds from certificates of participation (COPs) to address Wake County’s school growth — an amount that will last at least two years. They also want commissioners to consider Wake County’s growing tax base in calculating future funding needs, and to fill existing under-capacity schools.
“It’s not an easy job for anybody,” Capps said, “but what bothers us most is that the school board is in a box and they won’t let any ideas outside that box come forward.”
For instance, the school board should seriously consider charter schools, critics said. Parents and educators at the forefront of the charter school movement said that the schools work, they save money, and they should be used more widely to help meet the needs of a fast-growing school district.
“Charters have a higher percentage of ‘schools of excellence’ and operate with 26 percent less taxpayer funds than other public schools,” said Liz Morey, founder of the Research Triangle Charter Academy. Morey said she thinks the Wake County School Board should press the state legislature to lift the cap on charters, so more could become available in Wake County.
“We are very accountable to parents. We treat our parents as customers because that’s what they are—if we do not serve our students, they can leave or we can be shut down,” Morey said. She said the same thing cannot be said about under-performing public schools.
Susanne Robinson is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal.