Sixty-three percent of Wake County voters would reject a school bond referendum that triggers a property-tax increase, according to a new poll commissioned by the John Locke Foundation.
The poll also shows more than 70 percent of the voters, including most parents with children, would support mandatory year-round school calendars if they saved money on school construction.
JLF President John Hood distributed the poll results last week to the Blue Ribbon Committee on the Future of Wake County. Hood also presented a comparison of Wake’s tax burden and school-construction costs to those of 23 similar jurisdictions in 11 states.
Only 32 percent said they would support a Wake school bond. Five percent said they were not sure. While respondents in households without children were the most likely to oppose such a bond (68 percent) opposition was also evident (54 percent) among households with children under the age of 18.
Wake school staff in April proposed a $994 million school building program. Bonds would fund most of that program. It could lead to a property tax increase of up to five cents per $100 of assessed property value.
Citing news reports, the poll question suggested a bond referendum of up to $625 million would not require a tax increase. The poll showed 71 percent of voters would support a school bond of that size; 23 percent would oppose a $625 million bond.
The poll also showed 71 percent of voters would support mandatory year-round schools as a tool to save taxpayers’ money on school construction. Just 24 percent opposed mandatory year-round calendars, when the question was phrased in terms of taxpayer savings. Among Wake County households with children, support for mandatory year-round schools was lower than for the sample as a whole but still a majority at 59 percent. About a third of households with children opposed mandatory year-round schools.
Support for more year-round schools grew to 77 percent when offered as a voluntary alternative to schools with traditional calendars. Just 16 percent of voters opposed more voluntary year-round schools.
Voters also liked charter schools as an alternative to building school capacity, according to the poll. It showed 65 percent favor additional charter schools for Wake County. Just 26 percent opposed that idea.
North Carolina’s new state lottery might have an impact on the next Wake County school bond vote. Some lottery proceeds are designated for school construction. The poll found that 44 percent of likely voters said the new lottery revenue meant they were less likely to vote for a school bond financed by property taxes, while only 16 percent were more likely to support a school bond. Thirty-six percent said the lottery would have no effect on their school bond vote.
While 36 percent of those surveyed said the Wake County school system’s construction plan struck the right balance between new schools and other projects, such as renovations and support-service buildings, 27 percent thought the plan put too much emphasis on new schools. Twenty-four percent believed the plan puts too much emphasis on other projects.
Fifty-one percent of those polled opposed saving school-construction dollars by reducing non-classroom facilities such as sports stadiums and auditoriums, while 42 percent favored that idea. The poll also shows 51 percent of Wake County voters support tax credits or scholarships for parents who choose private or home schools for their children and thus reduce the demand for district-school capacity.
Wake’s Blue Ribbon Commission is studying the community’s public-facility needs over the next 25 years. Members have been told that planned schools, roads, and other public infrastructure will cost nearly $20 billion more over that time than current taxes and fees are expected to provide. Asked what the gap signified, 55 percent of poll respondents said that the county’s building plans were too large and too expensive, while 23 percent said the gap signaled that taxes and fees were too low.
More generally, Wake voters showed their preference for lower taxes to growth in public services and facilities. A poll question asked voters to choose between “more public facilities, even if it means higher taxes and fees, or relatively low taxes and fees, even if it means fewer public facilities and services.” The option of lower taxes and fewer facilities drew support from 59 percent of voters. Just 32 percent supported the higher-taxes, more facilities option.
In an effort to place their findings in context, John Locke Foundation researchers compared taxes and school-construction costs in Wake County to those of similar jurisdictions. On cost of government overall, Wake ranked near the middle of its peer group. Its average state and local tax burden was $3,091 per person in 2002, ranking Wake 12th among 23 peer counties. Montgomery County, Md., ranked highest with a burden of almost $4,825 per person. Brevard County, Fla., had the lowest burden ($2,070). Among other North Carolina counties, Mecklenburg ranked sixth ($3,496); Durham, 11th ($3,152); and Forsyth, 16th ($2,900).
Wake ranked 15th when government cost was expressed as a percentage of income. Wake’s total state and local tax burden was 8.62 percent. Durham County ranked third (10.24 percent); Forsyth, 10th (9.21 percent); and Mecklenburg, 11th (9.16 percent). Wake’s tax burden was below the simple average for the 23 counties, but above the average tax burden when weighted for population.
Asked whether Wake having lower taxes and fees than many comparable communities should be viewed as good news (lower costs to families and businesses) or bad news (less investment in needed public facilities), most respondents in the John Locke Foundation poll seemed to place a high value on keeping government costs low, with 65 percent saying a lower tax burden should be considered good news and only 25 percent saying it was bad news.
While relatively moderate in taxes, Wake ranked relatively high among peer counties in school construction costs. At $29,858 dollars per student, Wake ranked fifth among 15 peer counties in new elementary school construction costs in 2005. The cost of $221 per square foot ranked sixth. For new high schools built in 2004, Wake ranked first among eight peer counties in costs per student ($34,308) and second in cost per square foot ($200).
Poll respondents had a mixed reaction to the information that Wake’s school construction costs were relatively high. The question provided an argument for the higher costs (that officials said their approach improved operational efficiency and education) as well as an argument against the higher costs (that Wake was setting poor priorities with its dollars). Forty-six percent of respondents said Wake’s higher costs were a bad investment for taxpayers, while 40 percent call those higher costs a good investment.
Tel Opinion Research, based in Alexandria, Va., conducted the poll of likely Wake County voters from April 19-21. The poll produced a random sample of 401 Wake residents who voted in the 2002 and 2004 general elections.
Forty-six percent of those surveyed identified themselves as Democrats, 37 percent were Republicans, while 16 percent were unaffiliated voters. The sample size has a margin of error of plus or minus five points with a 95 percent confidence level.
Paul Chesser is associate editor of Carolina Journal.