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Successes, setbacks shape 2007 CMS bonds plan

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/10/11/11/58/2QEee.Em.138.jpeg|209
    Robert Lahser - rlahser@charlotteobserver.com
    Lake Norman Christian School is now operating at the former campus of Davidson IB 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.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2013/10/11/11/58/lUmkL.Em.138.jpeg|155
    FILE PHOTO -
    Hough High was among the new schools built using money from the 2007 bond referendum.

More Information

  • Interactive Map: Update on 2007 bond projects
  • Voter Guide 2013: More on CMS, other races
  • 2007 CMS bond projects

    Here’s the status of projects promised in the $516 million bond package voters approved in 2007.

    Complete

    •  New schools: Hough and Rocky River high schools; Ridge Road and Whitewater middle schools; Berewick, Grand Oak, River Gate, River Oaks and Stoney Creek elementaries.

    •  Replacement schools: McClintock Middle; Bain and Pineville elementaries.

    •  Renovations: Alexander Graham Middle.

    •  Other: Paving and site work at South Mecklenburg High and Cornelius Elementary; roofing replacements at Olympic and South Meck high schools; electrical upgrade at West Charlotte High.

    Coming

    •  New schools: Elementary to relieve Lake Wylie (August 2014), elementary to relieve Hickory Grove (August 2015), elementary to relieve Highland Creek (August 2015).

    •  Replacement schools: Newell Elementary (August 2015)

    •  Renovations: East Mecklenburg High (January 2014), Garinger High (August 2014), Independence High (August 2014), Olympic High (August 2014), West Mecklenburg High (August 2014), Hawthorne High (August 2015), Myers Park High (August 2015), Ranson Middle (August 2015).

    •  Expansion: Vance High (August 2014).

    •  Other: Indoor air quality work, asbestos removal and new fire alarms at several schools (some finished, some in progress).

    Canceled

    •  Renovations: Amay James Elementary and Davidson IB Middle (schools closed).

    •  Expansion: Grier Elementary (proposed prekindergarten wing moved to a new school).

    Added

    •  Security: Cameras, buzz-in entry systems and other safety measures at several schools.


  • Learn more

    Get details about 2007 bond projects and promises on an interactive map at www.charlotteobserver.com/voter.



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 they’ve 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 won’t 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 it’s time to get new projects started.

“We’re going to have a year of doing nothing but design for the first few projects,” Chamberlain said, adding that CMS doesn’t get bond money until county officials release it. “We don’t have $200 million sitting in the bank.”

Questions about unspent money and unfinished projects could be a problem for some voters.

Edward Donaldson, who’s running for the District 5 seat on the school board, says he’s among them. He says he recently learned that county commissioners are responsible for the delays, but he still opposes the bonds because CMS hasn’t 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 doesn’t 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 won’t 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 aren’t listed on the ballot and aren’t legally binding.

Politically, though, there’s 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 year’s 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 ‘We’re going to finish these projects in 2016,’” CMS planner Dennis LaCaria said.

He and others involved in the bond spending say they’ve done the work in a timely manner to the extent they could; delays were beyond the district’s control.

But complexity delivers another challenge. Opponents can zero in on their own simple messages, such as “$200 million unspent” and “projects delayed.”

“When you’re refuting a 10-second sound bite with a 10-minute dissertation, you’ve lost,” LaCaria said. “People think you’re 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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