Voters in Mecklenburg County will decide in November whether to spend $554 million for school bonds and other assorted projects.
Despite hard questions posed by Republican county commissioners — and two members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education — the bond issue will be on the ballot in the fall election.
Besides school projects, the total bond package includes $20 million to protect the Mountain Island Lake watershed, $14 million for jails and law-enforcement facilities, and $46 million for Central Piedmont Community College.
But Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools would stand to benefit most from the passage of a bond. CMS would get $427 million for construction of 10 schools and the renovation of 10 existing schools. Major components of the renovations include asbestos abatement and projects to ensure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, said Guy Chamberlain III, CMS assistant superintendent for building services.
Mecklenburg County commissioners approved the bond package during a meeting in early August. Democrat Jennifer Roberts joined Republicans Bill James, Dan Bishop, and Jim Puckett in voting against the entire $427 million.
James, Bishop, Puckett, and school board members Larry Gauvreau and Kaye McGarry had proposed a plan to spend $253 million in certificates of participation rather than the $427 million in bonds CMS was proposing.
“Unfortunately, the establishment wants to spend, spend, spend, and that’s our problem right now. Instead of focusing on growth in the suburbs, they’re focusing on renovation projects in the center city where no one lives,” Gauvreau said in a phone interview. “They’re building these factory-style schools, which are not what the public wants and which are not educationally focused.”
CMS’ denial of suburban growth also irked James, who has repeatedly criticized the school system and the board of education on his Web site, billjames.org, where he runs streaming video of commissioners’ meetings.
He cited as an example of CMS’ misplaced priorities the new Marie G. Davis Elementary School, built at a cost of $18 million to serve inner-city students. The problem, James said, is the school is at only 50 percent to 70 percent capacity.
“There are numerous other examples of newly rebuilt schools half-empty,” James wrote. “CMS says it is a myth, but the numbers don’t lie.”
James was no less candid in an e-mail message following the commissioners’ vote.
“The question for voters is whether they choose to reward incompetent planning and political payoffs that have significantly increased the size of the package,” he wrote. “CMS consistently has mismanaged and wasted millions. They have money in this bond package to re-build and expand schools that are half empty.”
James also said he thinks CMS is less than candid when it comes to construction costs.
“For months the county commission asked for a ‘priority list’ from CMS. We never received one,” he wrote.
Puckett criticized the vote.
“When you allow politics and social engineering to guide your facilities program, you end up with the problem we face of debt service growing faster than tax revenues and students attending schools at twice the population for which they were designed, and other schools half full,” Puckett wrote. “CMS has gone to great lengths to cover the facts that that they continue to be irresponsible with bond dollars,” he wrote.
CMS has 17 million square feet of space and 4,000 acres of land. The system also had requested as part of the bond package an additional $80 million for land acquisition, bringing its total request to $510 million. Opponents of the construction bond were in favor of money for land purchase, although it was whittled to about $46 million, including land for libraries and park sites.
At least 61 percent of the bond money would be used to accommodate growth. CMS estimates an enrollment of 120,000 students now, and that number is expected to increase by 53,000 in the next 10 years.
In an interview with the Charlotte Business Journal, Chamberlain defended CMS’ request. A major concern, he said, was that only 70 of 147 schools meet current standards.
“Some advocate spending all our capital funds on new facilities, and while we need them, we can’t forget the schools that are physically inadequate,” Chamberlain said. “They lack computer labs or kindergarten facilities, the media centers and cafeterias are too small, there’s no room to house staff,” Chamberlain said.
It doesn’t help matters that construction costs are soaring as the Charlotte metropolitan area continues to grow.
“Right now we are already challenged on projects that have already been approved, and we are going to have to some serious belt-tightening,” he told the Business Journal. “Two years ago we bid Torrence Creek Elementary at $90 per square foot, and now it’s about $125 for the same project. Construction’s no longer a buyer’s market, like it was right after 9/11. It’s hard to get contractors to do renovations, which are always more difficult.”
Now that the bond package is on the ballot, a contentious political battle appears to be shaping up.
A Charlotte Observer poll taken in May indicates a favorable public view of school bonds. Six out of every 10 respondents said they would support a bond package worth $500 million. Previous bonds, one for $224 million in 2002 and one $275 million in 2000, passed by large margins.
By comparison, 49 percent said taxes should be raised specifically for schools.
Resistance by Republican county commissioners and GOP school board members is further opposed by support for the bonds by the local mainstream media and the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber, The Business Journal reported, hired a public relations firm to help promote the school bonds.
Gauvreau disapproves of such support.
“What is unusual in light of all the compelling data that shows that Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools have been horribly mismanaged and coddled by a board majority that allows it to happen, is that the Chamber continues to align itself with that board.”
Is Gauvreau optimistic voters will turn down the bond package? Indeed, he said he thinks cooler heads will prevail at the ballot box.
“The smarter eyes are finally looking at this and saying, ‘You can’t do this,’” Gauvreau said.
Sam Hieb is a contributing editor of Carolina Journal.