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Schools are growing; will county respond?

Mecklenburg County voters should approve a $290 million bonds issue for Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools. It’s a 17-project package with only one significant flaw – it doesn’t do nearly enough to help CMS chase the growth that continues to put demands on our school system’s infrastructure.

Voters also should give the nod to a more forward-thinking bonds proposal for Central Piedmont Community College. The $210 million package will help CPCC expand its footprint throughout the county, and it will increase science and technology space that’s critical to train students for jobs in emerging industries.

Voters, however, should have had an opportunity to vote on something different: A CMS bonds package robust enough to meet the needs of a large district that’s simultaneously growing and aging. CMS wanted that kind of package, and there’s a model for it just a few hours up the road.

Earlier this month, Wake County voters approved an $810 million bond issue that will allow the district to embark on one of the biggest school construction programs in the county’s history. The bonds package was the product of collaboration from a Republican-led county commission and Democratic-led school board, each of which recognized that it wasn’t wise for the county to close its eyes to the school district’s inevitable growth.

We appreciate that Mecklenburg commissioners are trying to be responsible here. Previous boards have issued large bonds without raising taxes – a sure path to unsustainable debt. Current commissioners are wisely avoiding that, and they’re also reluctant to ask voters for a tax increase, which will be the result of the bonds in Wake County.

But how did Wake County residents feel about that? They passed the bonds issue easily, with 58 percent of the vote. “It’s a great thing to invest in education,” said Joe Bryan, the Republican chairman of the Wake Board of Commissioners.

Mecklenburg’s bonds give a sampling of what that investment can provide. Along with projects underway from the 2007 bonds package (all of which has been assigned to projects, by the way) the 2013 bonds will provide more relief from overcrowding with three new schools. The projects also include enhancing career and technical education offerings at several high schools and creating new STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) magnet schools in east and south Charlotte.

CPCC’s bonds will help create space for two new CMS middle colleges on CPCC campuses – a replication of the popular Cato Middle College High program that allows CMS students to get a jump on college and job training.

The only vocal opposition to either bonds package has come from two suburban groups with a curious argument – that the county should focus on teacher pay before issuing CMS bonds. Of course our teachers should be paid better. Voting down these bonds won’t help with that.

For the same reason, voters shouldn’t protest the relative skimpiness of the bonds with a no vote. We’re not sure commissioners would get the right message about the school system, which is this: We’re growing – at a pace of more than 2,000 students a year. We’re overcrowded, especially in northern and southern Mecklenburg. We’re aging, with about 50 percent of our schools near 50 years old.

If we want our school system to thrive, we need to provide students and teachers the space, renovations and innovations that will help them succeed. Or we can fall further behind the growth we’re chasing.

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