North Meck balks at $922 million school bond plan. Can CMS overcome that resistance?

CMS bonds: what are they, and what do they mean for parents?

On November 7, voters will be asked to weigh in on a $922 million bond package for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. This package calls for ten completely new schools, brand new buildings to replace seven aging schools and renovations or expansions a
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On November 7, voters will be asked to weigh in on a $922 million bond package for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. This package calls for ten completely new schools, brand new buildings to replace seven aging schools and renovations or expansions a

Endorsing school bonds tends to be a no-brainer for business leaders.

Good schools attract employers and home buyers, and nothing symbolizes a thriving public education system like new buildings.

But when the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce meets Monday to discuss the $922 million Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools bond that’s on the Nov. 7 ballot, the only question is whether the group will actively oppose the bond or sit idle.

“This bond isn’t going to be helping north Mecklenburg schools in the foreseeable future,” said Lake Norman Chamber President Bill Russell. “There is absolutely no likelihood the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce will be endorsing.”

With Charlotte’s September primary over, public attention is turning to the CMS bond campaign. Both the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus and the Lake Norman Chamber recently held debates to help them make a decision. The caucus, which is much more likely to support the bonds, votes Sunday.

The $922 million plan is the largest school bond ever put before Mecklenburg voters, second in North Carolina only to the $970 million Wake County voters approved in 2006. Voters are being asked to grant the county authority to borrow money for 10 totally new schools, replacement buildings for seven existing ones and renovations and/or expansions at 12 more.

10 new schools

7 replacement schools

12 schools renovated and/or expanded

So far it’s not the size of the price tag that’s sparking controversy. Even bond critics agree the district is overdue for an infusion of construction cash to catch up with growth and upgrade deteriorating buildings.

“Nobody is against bonds. I’m against this bond,” said County Commissioner Jim Puckett, who represents the north suburbs. The sentiment is echoed by Rhonda Lennon, the school board member who represents the same area and cast the sole school board vote against the CMS request.

It’s the choice of projects that’s in question. The project list includes little for fast-growing Huntersville, Davidson and Cornelius, though a replacement school for J.M. Alexander middle school just opened on Huntersville’s southern edge and the bonds would build a new K-8 magnet school at the site of the old Alexander.

cmsbonds north_14
Students use the media center at the new J.M. Alexander Middle School building in Huntersville. Diedra Laird

Most of the new construction would relieve crowding in the south, southwest and eastern parts of the county, where schools are also overflowing. The list, approved in April, includes new buildings for West Charlotte High and Bruns Academy, added in response to pressure from west Charlotte residents.

The task of picking bond projects always requires a balancing act. CMS leaders try to zero in on the most urgent needs, balance the pressures of growth against the need to upgrade deteriorating buildings, and offer something for all parts of the county. They try to chart the future, knowing the past haunts them.

For instance, residents of historically black west Charlotte neighborhoods recall decades of neglect and broken promises from school officials. That was part of the backdrop when westside advocates, including County Commissioner Vilma Leake, told the school board earlier this year that black voters wouldn’t support school bonds unless the 2017 plan included money to replace Bruns and West Charlotte, which serve mostly African American and low-income students.

Arthur Griffin, a former CMS board chair who’s a leader of this year’s Vote Yes for School Bonds campaign, says the north part of the county may look light on this year’s list but has gotten plenty in the past. Since 2000, CMS has spent more than $375 million in the northern District 1, far more than any other district, he said.

“They’ve gotten their fair share,” Griffin said. “This next bond referendum is simply trying to take care of other parts of the community.”

But northern advocates say CMS spent the past decade or so trying to make up for its negligence as their part of the county transitioned from small towns and sparsely populated countryside to booming suburbs. The district was slow to recognize and respond to that growth, leaving northern schools severely crowded.

$427 million in CMS bonds defeated in 2005

$516 million approved in 2007

$295 million approved in 2013

The reality of school construction and finance means CMS is always playing catch-up while trying to anticipate population trends. The pace of construction and renovation slowed dramatically during the recession, and the only bond approved since was $295 million in 2013. CMS has finished only about half of those projects.

Northern resistance to the CMS bonds goes beyond the district’s perennial critics. The Huntersville Town Council Town Board has voted to oppose the bonds. The Cornelius Board of Commissioners is expected to do so Oct. 2.

Lennon says she voted against the plan because the original list didn’t do enough to relieve crowded northern schools, and the problem was compounded when West Charlotte and Bruns were jumped past high-ranked northern projects such as a new building for Coulwood Middle School and renovations for Huntersville Elementary.

Lennon said there was talk among board members of adding a couple of northern projects if it would win her support, but she didn’t want to further corrupt the ranking process and push the total past $1 billion.

“This is a huge bond. It’s going to take the county probably six to 10 years to spend all that money. I would rather have had a smaller bond that led us to have more flexibility (for dealing with growth) two or three years down the road,” Lennon told the Alexander Middle School PTA on Wednesday.

It’s hard to tell whether northern opposition could doom this package. In off years, the decisions often come down to who cares enough to vote.

“Our capital needs are real, they are vast and they are deep,” she said. “I just don’t believe that this is the right bond for us now.”

Lennon and Puckett say a bond defeat would simply force CMS to come up with a better project list, while work continues on the remaining 2013 projects. County officials can still borrow money to launch new work even if the bond referendum fails.

It’s hard to tell whether northern opposition could doom this package. In off years, the decisions often come down to who cares enough to vote. The vast majority traditionally stay home, with turnout below 20 percent.

The last time Mecklenburg voters said no to school bonds was in 2005, with rejection coming from across the county.

School bond votes often reflect general feelings about CMS. In 2005 the district was between superintendents and many complained that officials had lost touch with their communities.

This time around CMS is coming off a controversial student assignment vote that left some residents threatening to defeat the bonds and leave public schools. But others were delighted by changes or relieved to see their neighborhoods untouched.

And the district has a new superintendent: Clayton Wilcox took the top office in July, after the bond plan was in place. Now he’s making the case that students across the county need and deserve better facilities.

“I understand that not everybody is happy with the mix of projects, but I would encourage you to take a careful look at what’s happened over time,” Wilcox told the group that met Thursday in the new Alexander building. “If you look at what’s happened over time you’ll see that the school boards, past and present, have done an excellent job of distributing resources and trying to keep up with growth.”

“All you need to do is step into this facility and understand what new schools mean to a community, and to the kids who go there,” Wilcox said. “I think this is about providing hope. I think this is about trying to inspire young people to be the best they can be.”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms