Cabarrus County voters to decide on cut-down bond issues

After months of often contentious discussion between Cabarrus County’s education leaders and its commissioners, the fate of two proposed school bond issues now rests in the hands of voters in separate Nov. 4 referendums.

Voting in the general election for U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives, Cabarrus County Board of Commissioners, Cabarrus County Board of Education and several judgeships will take place 6:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Nov. 4 at the 46 precinct polling stations throughout the county.

On the reverse side of the ballot, voters also will be asked whether they support the two proposed bond issues for construction of new education facilities in the county.

• The Cabarrus County Community College Bonds referendum asks for $9 million to build an advanced technology center in the county as part of the Rowan-Cabarrus Community College system.

• The Cabarrus County School Bonds referendum requests $11 million to replace aging Royal Oaks Elementary School.

If issued, both would be general obligation bonds, which are low-interest loans that municipalities can use for capital projects not covered by their operating budgets.

Interest rates are generally low on GO bonds because, tied to the county’s property tax base and rate, they’re based on the county’s ability to repay the debt.

Repayment typically begins once construction is completed.

Both referendums had a tumultuous run through the process that led to their placement on the ballot.

CCS, RCCC and the Kannapolis City Schools each presented separate referendum requests to the commissioners that, when combined, totaled more than $100 million.

• In its original referendum, RCCC asked for $16 million to build the advanced technology center, plus $1.5 million in renovations to the facilities for the school’s cosmetology program.

• CCS asked for $60 million to replace Mount Pleasant Middle and Royal Oaks Elementary schools, and for renovations at Central Cabarrus High School, Coltrane-Webb Elementary and the Glenn Center.

• KCS requested $31 million to cover the construction of a new middle school; for renovations to A.L. Brown High, Jackson Park Elementary and Woodrow Wilson Elementary schools; and to repair deteriorating parking lots throughout the school district.

The Kannapolis school district later withdrew its request after the commissioners offered to issue the system a $23 million short-term financing option to build the new middle school in fiscal 2015. To date, the commissioners have approved $1.3 million for the engineering and design process to begin.

After months of heated debate – not only between education leaders and the all-Republican Board of Commissioners, but also among commissioners themselves – the referendums now on the ballot stand practically unrecognizable when compared to the original requests.

Throughout most of the process, commissioners Steve Morris and chairwoman Liz Poole were at odds with commissioners Jason Oesterreich, Chris Measmer and Larry Burrage.

Both Morris and Poole favored the higher bonds. Oesterreich, Measmer and Burrage pushed for a pay-cash-as-you-go plan, which would build schools at a staggered rate as cash became available.

Final voting among the board approved much slimmer versions of the original referendums. RCCC trimmed $7 million from the referendum for the new advanced technology center and eliminated any bond request for the cosmetology facility’s upgrade.

If voters approve the proposed bond issue, commissioners have promised an additional $2 million toward the technology center. Fundraising through the private sector, said RCCC President Carol Spalding, also will help pay for the construction.

The Cabarrus County Schools’ proposed bond issue is $49 million leaner than the original request from March. The $11 million bond issue would go toward replacing Royal Oaks Elementary School.

The commissioners have allotted $13.5 million to build a replacement for Mount Pleasant Middle School. All other projects mentioned in the earlier referendum have been mothballed.

Proponents of the school system’s bond issue say the amount most likely won’t be enough to replace Royal Oaks. School officials believe a much larger school is needed for the district to keep up with student enrollment growth.

“They (county commissioners) cut the amount because they didn’t really see the need to look at the bigger, longer-term picture,” said Blake Kiger, chairman of the Cabarrus County Board of Education.

Kiger also doesn’t believe the money set aside for a new Mount Pleasant Middle will cover the costs of replacing that school.

“Our estimate to build was $22 million,” he said. “We’ll have to either put the project on hold or go back and request funding.”

If approved, the school system’s bond issue could be supplemented with other county money. “If the bids are higher than the bond, then the Board of Commissioners will need to identify additional sources of funding,” Poole said.

Proponents of RCCC’s new advanced technology center say the 60,000-square-foot facility will be a game-changer for the county, creating highly skilled workers in a state-of-the-art facility that’s readily adaptable to whatever industry comes to the area.

“It’s something that the community needs right away,” said RCCC President Carol Spalding. She cited the urgent need for highly skilled workers as companies like Alevo Inc., an electric battery firm set to take over the former Philip Morris facility, move into the area.

“We want to be in a position to train and continue to be a partner with industry in our county,” Spalding said. “So we need to upgrade our facilities and our programs and add new programs to support industries that will be coming.”

But not everyone is in favor of the bonds. Concord native David Treece, 30, said if they’re approved, the county may be digging a hole it cannot get out of anytime soon.

“We don’t know what the future holds, and we’re committing ourselves to huge amounts of debt,” said Treece. “Down the road, we limit our ability to do other things because we have these debt service payments.”

Treece frequently attended commissioners’ meetings during the bond discussions, and favored Oesterreich’s pay-cash-as-you-go approach.

Regardless of whether voters approve the bond issues in the Nov. 4 referendums, the county is still required to provide for the needs of its public school system. But that will most likely be a discussion for the new Board of Commissioners, whose incoming members will be sworn in Dec. 1.

“There have been no discussions concerning any actions after Dec. 1,” said Poole. “I cannot speak for the new board.”