With the first Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools bond vote in six years looming Nov. 5, people are asking what happened with the $516 million in projects the voters approved in 2007.
CMS leaders say theyve honored their promises.
Critics say progress has been slow, with millions still unspent and projects not yet started.
Both have a point.
Since voters said yes to the record-setting bond package, CMS has built nine new schools, replaced three old ones and finished upgrades at Alexander Graham Middle School.
But half the projects remain unfinished. Some are under construction, some still in planning. The last two elementary schools to be built with 2007 bonds wont open until 2015. And two promised renovations were scrubbed when CMS closed schools to save money.
CMS officials say the Great Recession, not a change of heart, slowed their construction and renovation plan.
County commissioners control the checkbook. After a strong start on the 2007 projects, county officials realized they were getting into trouble repaying the debt and put CMS on a tight construction budget.
It was a cliff, says Associate Superintendent Guy Chamberlain. We went from $200 million (a year) to virtually zero.
About $200 million of the money voters approved in 2007 remains unspent. But that money is designated for the projects that remain in the pipeline, and CMS leaders say its time to get new projects started.
Were going to have a year of doing nothing but design for the first few projects, Chamberlain said, adding that CMS doesnt get bond money until county officials release it. We dont have $200 million sitting in the bank.
Questions about unspent money and unfinished projects could be a problem for some voters.
Edward Donaldson, whos running for the District 5 seat on the school board, says hes among them. He says he recently learned that county commissioners are responsible for the delays, but he still opposes the bonds because CMS hasnt delivered on its promises.
I would be on board if they would follow through, Donaldson said.
Good scene sours
School bonds are a line of credit authorized by county voters, who pledge their tax money to repay the debt to those who buy the bonds.
The $516 million package, approved by 68 percent of voters, came while the economy was thriving and CMS enrollment booming.
The construction program started off strong: By August 2009, CMS had four new elementary schools and two middle schools ready for students. A year later, Hough High in Cornelius and Rocky River High in Mint Hill opened.
At first the economic slump worked in CMS favor, as the construction market stalled and contractors dropped prices. For instance, Ridge Road Middle School in northeast Charlotte came in $5 million under budget.
At one point, Chamberlain said, CMS was $40 million under budget on the bond projects.
But the county saw its tax revenue shrink, and a credit rating agency warned about the growing burden of paying back construction debt, much of it for CMS. Commissioners slowed bond sales.
They also created a new priority system for construction projects, designed to rank parks, jails, libraries and schools on an even footing. As the economy staggered back to its feet, that became a sore point for CMS. For instance, the county gauges population growth based on voter registration. But that doesnt always jibe with enrollment growth.
As a result, CMS officials are chafing to move ahead with such projects as a new elementary school in the northeastern Highland Creek area. But under the county rankings, construction wont start until next spring.
It was a double-whammy, Chamberlain says of the slowdown and new priorities.
Some projects change
When school leaders and citizen boosters conduct a bond campaign, they spell out projects the money will be used for. But those projects arent listed on the ballot and arent legally binding.
Politically, though, theres a strong sense that delivering on promises is the best way to keep getting approval. After complaints in the 1990s that CMS was pulling a bait-and-switch on bond spending, officials created a citizens panel to oversee bond spending.
But the recession brought unforeseen changes. In fall of 2010, the board voted to close about a dozen schools, including Davidson International Baccalaureate Middle School. The small, high-performing school was popular with northern families and was slated for a $6 million renovation. But with the budget shrinking, CMS leaders decided it made more sense to move the magnet program into the larger Alexander Middle School and close the building.
The next summer, CMS also decided to close its prekindergarten centers and move the 4-year-olds to elementary schools. That ended plans to spend another $6 million renovating Amay James in west Charlotte. This year, CMS decided it needs that building to house students at adjacent Reid Park, which was turned into a preK-8 school. It will end the lease with the private school now using Amay James in 2015.
Other projects got upgrades. With money freed by lower costs and canceled projects, CMS decided to spend more on old schools scheduled for massive renovations, instead building totally new schools on the grounds. In August, students at McClintock Middle and Bain and Pineville elementary schools moved into new buildings built with 2007 bond money; Newell Elementary will get a new building in 2015.
Hawthorne High near uptown Charlotte, which was scheduled for $5.7 million in plumbing and mechanical upgrades, got bumped up to a $15 million renovation when Superintendent Heath Morrison decided to convert it from an alternative school to a health-sciences magnet.
Earlier this year, the school board and county commissioners voted to use just over $19 million in 2007 bond money for an entirely new project: upgrading security at most schools. Those improvements include security cameras and new entry systems designed to make it harder for intruders to get into schools.
Promises made ...
As Morrison has rolled out the plans for this years bonds, he and his staff have described the 2007 bond work using phrases such as promises made, promises kept and on time and under budget.
They acknowledge the reality is more complicated.
When we went to the voters in 2007, we never said Were going to finish these projects in 2016, CMS planner Dennis LaCaria said.
He and others involved in the bond spending say theyve done the work in a timely manner to the extent they could; delays were beyond the districts control.
But complexity delivers another challenge. Opponents can zero in on their own simple messages, such as $200 million unspent and projects delayed.
When youre refuting a 10-second sound bite with a 10-minute dissertation, youve lost, LaCaria said. People think youre full of garbage.
Interactive map: Update on 2007 bond projects
This map shows the status of major school projects promised during the 2007 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools bond campaign. Green dots indicate completed projects, yellow indicates those in progress or still to be started and red shows canceled projects. Click any dot for details about costs, changes and current status. The $516 million bond package also included $30 million for land purchases and some smaller renovation work, such as roofing and air-quality improvements, that was spread among several schools. Those projects are not mapped.
Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms
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