The $290 million bond package for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools comes with an ironic twist for voters and taxpayers.
It’s the smallest amount to go before voters in the past decade. County commissioners imposed the limit so they won’t have to raise property taxes to repay the debt.
“Absent some sort of fiscal meltdown, these bonds should be able to be issued without any impact on existing taxes,” said county commissioner Bill James, a well-known budget hawk.
But the smaller price tag means fewer projects. For instance, this year’s plan includes three new schools, compared with 12 in the $516 million plan voters approved in 2007.
And that could make it tough to get voters excited about new projects for their schools and neighborhoods, even though CMS officials say all of the renovations, expansions and new schools are desperately needed. The need to spread the spending out until a possible 2017 bond vote means some areas won’t see results for years.
That’s potentially problematic in the north and south suburbs, where early opposition to the bonds has emerged. A “vote no” statement from representatives of a northern education group and a southern taxpayer group says that the projects in those areas don’t do enough to relieve school crowding and won’t be completed for four to seven years. The package “fails to address the critical needs of today,” says the statement by Tom Davis of Huntersville and Tim Timmerman from the Ballantyne area.
But others from around the county say they’ll support the bonds, even if they wish there were money to do more.
“A lot of people believe that CMS automatically gets a large amount of money and they’re just sitting on it,” said Charles Smith, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators. “I’m hoping the vast majority of voters in the county realize the needs.”
Superintendent Heath Morrison and the school board have tried to pinch pennies while weaving academic goals into construction plans. To get a sense of how that plays out, look at the three new schools on the list.
For starters, they’re combined elementary-middle schools. District leaders say that saves money and eases the transition for sixth-graders, who often see test scores drop when they move to a new school.
Two of the schools will be magnets: a Spanish immersion school in east Charlotte and a math/science/arts magnet in southern Ballantyne. They’ll relieve crowding at nearby schools without the turmoil that comes when the district redraws boundaries for new neighborhood schools. They’ll also offer popular academic options at a time of increased competition from charters and private schools.
But it’s going to be awhile before they become reality. Two are scheduled to open in 2017, the third in 2020.
County has changed
In past bond campaigns, much of the debate centered on how much money would go toward urban renovation vs. suburban growth.
Those lines have shifted as the population has changed. CMS says Albemarle Road Elementary in east Charlotte is now among its most crowded schools, with students spilling into a mobile-classroom village behind the school. A booming Latino population is one of the driving forces; roughly half the students are Hispanic.
Under the bond plan, relief would come from a $30 million K-8 school that would combine a small attendance zone with magnet seats for families who want their students to learn in Spanish and English. Collinswood Language Academy in south Charlotte, which offers the same program, had more than 150 students on the waiting list this year.
CMS says it would cost an additional $18 million to build separate elementary and middle schools.
The magnet theme demonstrates Morrison’s approach to school planning. He’s expanding choice at a time when CMS is competing with a growing number of charter schools and the prospect of vouchers to send students to private schools. The bond package also calls for creating STEAM magnets (that’s science, technology, engineering, arts and math) in the old Oakhurst Elementary in southeast Charlotte and in the Ballantyne area of south Charlotte. For some suburban residents, that would provide a long-sought chance to give their children academic options without a long bus ride across the county.
Mecklenburg’s growth and the shrinking budget make it increasingly tough to buy land for big campuses. Officials said this year that the era of building full-size high schools may be ending. Instead, they say, they’ll look for ways to create smaller alternatives while expanding existing campuses.
No new high schools are in this bond plan. The plan calls for relieving crowding at Bailey Middle School with a $9.5 million expansion of Davidson Elementary, which would become a K-8 school in 2019.
Will closings matter?
During the 2007 bond vote, the prospect of closing schools was far from anyone’s mind. The anger generated when CMS ended up doing just that in 2010 could be a wild card in this year’s campaign.
Urban communities bore the brunt of the closings, with some holding street protests and accusing board members of racism. But Thelma Byers-Bailey, who says she was motivated to run for school board by the closings, and Vilma Leake, a county commissioner who has frequently criticized those decisions, both say they doubt that anger will translate into “no” votes on this year’s bonds.
“Right now, Heath Morrison has a honeymoon going on,” Leake said. “The trust level is becoming stronger for the school district.”
John Maye, who protested the closings, says the anger has abated, but many remain disaffected. That could translate to low voter turnout in communities that traditionally support bonds, he said: “There’s just so much apathy right now.”
Davidson Mayor John Woods says his north suburban town suffered a double disappointment: CMS closed Davidson IB Middle School, a beloved community institution, then rejected a request to let the town use the building as a community center. CMS gives educational uses top priority, so the school was leased to Lake Norman Christian School.
But Woods says he’s campaigning for the CMS bonds. He said the school board and Morrison have built a good working relationship with the town. “Some of the angst has calmed down,” he said.
Will it pass?
CMS bonds have been put before voters seven times in the past 18 years. They said “yes” five times and “no” twice, in 1995 and 2005.
The pro-bond campaigns are traditionally well-funded and well-organized, while opposition is not. This year is no exception.
Opposition is coming from groups known as SPARK and SMART, whose organizers aren’t disclosing membership, and from people posting online comments. Issues include skepticism about the “ no tax increase” claim, complaints that the bonds won’t do enough and concerns about the impact of charters and vouchers.
“Because the community feels ignored and does not trust CMS, there is a current and rapid exodus to charter schools” and home-schooling, the SPARK/SMART statement says.
Since the state legislature lifted the 100-school cap on charters, the independently-run public schools have proliferated in the Charlotte area. This year six new charters opened in the Charlotte region, while CMS opened one new school. The state has approved 11 more charters to open in Mecklenburg and Cabarrus counties in 2014 (students can cross county lines for charters).
Joe White, a former school board chairman and longtime political observer, says he expects this year’s bonds to pass. But he notes that he thought the same thing in 2005, when suburban opposition proved stronger than he and others expected.
“I would think that the bonds are in decent shape,” White said. “But (in 2005) they put together enough opposition to defeat them, so who knows?”
Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms
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