In just a few short weeks, voters across North Carolina will head to the polls. This year – like many others before it – school bond referenda will appear on ballots in a number of counties. Since 1995, North Carolinians have weighed in on 89 bond referenda (.pdf), passing 70 and voting down 19. Such taxpayer largesse doesn’t come cheap, adding up to a whopping $5.8 billion out of the $7.7 billion total requested.
Is public patience starting to wear thin? If last year’s election is a portent of things to come, the answer may be “yes.” In 2005, 57 percent of voters in Mecklenburg County turned down $427 million in bonds. Lest you think Mecklenburg County taxpayers are penny-pinchers, consider that these same voters have approved $1.1 billion in school bonds since 1995.
In Wake County, voters have approved $1.2 billion in school bonds since 1995. But bond supporters this year may find that the well is running dry. The largest local school bond referendum in our state’s history – $970 million in general obligation bonds – will be on November’s ballot in Wake County. If passed, such a measure would raise the county’s property tax rate by 4.7 cents per $100 of assessed value, or an additional $117.50 annually on a $250,000 house.
Wake County voters, responsible for defeating a $650 million bond in 1999, are balking at the nearly billion-dollar bond referendum. In a poll taken earlier this year, 59 percent of voters expressed opposition to the bond. And many of the PTAs in Wake County have declined to pass resolutions supporting the bond. Neither development bodes well for the pro-bond campaign.
Why might voters (in Wake and elsewhere) decide against giving county leaders a blank check? After all, a vote for bonds is a vote “for the children,” right? Actually, voting “yes” or “no” on bonds is not as simple as it appears. In addition to assessing their support for the amount of the bond, voters must also determine whether they believe bond money will be used efficiently and whether they can trust the spending priorities of elected county commissioners and school board members – no small task.
There’s no question that North Carolina’s largest counties are struggling mightily to accommodate rising student enrollments and aging buildings. Counties are also limited to one primary source of facility funding by general obligation bonds, which are paid back from property taxes. Yet in spite of these challenges, local leaders remain largely unwilling to innovate or look for alternate solutions to our facilities crisis, leaving voters no choice but to question current spending patterns. Add to that a scarcity of public-private partnerships, a general aversion to school choice, exorbitant construction costs and forced school assignments, and you have all the makings of a voter rebellion.
The pro-bond campaign is anticipating this and is prepared to spend their way into voters’ hearts. Residents in Wake County can expect a media blitz of TV, radio and newspaper ads, as well as phone calls, rallies, and pro-bond propaganda. The $300,000 spent by the pro-bond campaign in Mecklenburg County will probably be a drop in the bucket compared to the amount spent in Wake County during the next few weeks.
In the end, though, hiking taxes on property owners year after year isn’t the answer to our school facilities crisis. If the past 10 years are any indication, we’ve already been there, done that. Billions of dollars later, isn’t it time we tried something new?