To say that many North Carolina voters are skeptical of school bonds is no overstatement. But Forsyth County’s formula — be specific, resist adding frills, question everything and hold the line — seems to work where others fail. Just ask officials in Mecklenburg County, where, after a heated political battle, voters resoundingly rejected a $427 million bond referendum for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in November.
And while voters in Wake County approved a $450 million school bond referendum in 2003, school officials know that the planned 2006 bond referendum will be a tough sell, considering the fact that they will probably ask for at least twice that amount.
But in Forsyth County, voters passed the last two school bonds, one for $94 million in 1994 and another for $150 million in 2001. Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools will ask voters to go the ballot box again next November to approve a bond referendum totaling $250 million to $290 million, Superintendent Don Martin said.
But Martin and many school board members are confident the bond will pass. If it does, it probably will have something to do with the system’s philosophy on school construction and renovation.
The county’s hold-the-line philosophy has made WSFCS a model for using school bonds efficiently, finishing projects on time and on budget.
“Integrity with the public is critical,” Martin said. “Communication is always a challenge, always a key.”
“We learned real quickly that to be successful in the eyes of the public, you do what you say you’re going to do,” said WSFC school board member Buddy Collins. “There are people who didn’t vote for the last bond referendum who might vote for the next one because of what we did here.”
WSFCS has completed four major projects with money from the 2001 bond. Two high schools, Ronald Reagan and Simon G. Atkins, and one middle school, East Forsyth, opened for the 2005-2006 school year.
A major renovation was also recently completed at Carver High School, where a new performing arts space was built, windows were replaced, the entryway was redesigned, and an integrated communications system was installed The total cost came to about $8 million.
All three new school projects were clustered together to accommodate the increasing student population in Forsyth County. They came in on budget, with Reagan costing $23 million, Atkins costing $22 million, and East Forsyth costing $11 million.
During a tour of Reagan High, Principal Stan Elrod, a 30-year veteran of WSFCS, marveled at the school’s bang for the buck.
“It’s hard to believe they built this school for under $30 million,” Elrod said. “There was a great thought process here.”
While Reagan is a traditional high school and Atkins is a magnet school focusing on technology, the schools, physically speaking, are carbon copies of each other. The same architect designed both schools, a strategy that saves time and money.
They were constructed as simple rectangles with double–loaded corridors so students could move about with ease during class changes.
Building materials consisted of masonry work with steel partitions. Decorative features such as paint color were kept simple. Built-in casework was kept to a minimum and contracted with a manufacturer who could furnish and install it in bulk quantities.
“We’re looking for functionality, not architectural significance,” Martin said. “Sometimes, architects want to build the Taj Mahal. But we’re looking to get from point A to point B. The building is nothing but a tool. We want kids to be comfortable in it, and we want them to feel like somebody cares about them, but we’re not looking for a lot of frills in the construction. You have to develop relationships with architects to make them understand the type of customer you are. We’re not out to win design awards.”
A major feature of both high schools and East Forsyth is movable walls so that the cafeteria, gym, and auditorium can convert into one large commons area to accommodate larger crowds.
“Most high school auditoriums sit empty 90-95 percent of the time,” Jim Moorefield, WSFCS construction specialist.
WSFC oversees its own construction, meaning no bond money went to construction management firms. Moorefield and fellow construction specialist Bill Powell spent several years in the private sector before coming to work for the school system, so they not only know construction, but they know how to keep costs down.
They had to, or they wouldn’t be able to keep jobs in the private sector, they said
They’re also sensitive to the fact that a good majority of Forsyth County’s population has no direct stake in the school system.
“We’re held accountable for what we do,” Moorefield said. “I feel like I’m basically representing an 82-year-old woman on a fixed income. I’m spending her money.”
The school system’s solid relationship with Forsyth County commissioners helps things run smoothly, Collins said. “If we have certain needs, they are likely to come forth with them,” he said.
WSFCS also has one of the few remaining partisan school boards in the state. The partisan board has been in place since 1994, with Republicans holding the majority. The party now holds a 7-2 majority, with every member facing re-election in 2006. The board also has a solid relationship with Martin, who has been superintendent since 1994.
“He’s very conservative in the ways that matter,” said school board member Jeannie Metcalf.
Martin said it would be later in the year before the exact amount of the bond proposal would be set. About half of those funds would go to renovation projects, since the three new schools helped ease crowding, at least for the time being.
But whatever the amount comes to, he’s confident voters will be receptive. The information’s out there; the system’s Web site shows the progress of every project financed by bond money.
“When we start this bond campaign in 2006, we can say we completed every project we promised,” Martin said. “Meeting our promises since 1995 is good.”
Sam Hieb is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal.