There’s support for $922 million school bond, mixed reviews for CMS, poll finds

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools stands poised to reap a $922 million vote of confidence on Nov. 7, based on a new poll of registered voters.

Almost 78 percent of the 611 people who responded said they support the school bond referendum, while only 14.5 percent said they’re opposed, according to the Elon University/Charlotte Observer/WBTV poll. If voters approve the record-setting bond package, it would be used to build 10 new schools, replace the facilities for seven existing ones and expand or renovate 12 more schools.

But another poll question about confidence in CMS found a more mixed picture.

The past year brought a contentious series of student assignment decisions and the hiring of a new superintendent. The poll asked how people felt about the district compared with last year. The results: about 24 percent reported less confidence, 10.5 percent reported more and almost 47 percent felt about the same (the rest didn’t know or didn’t answer).

The Elon Poll, conducted in partnership with the Observer and WBTV, the Observer’s news partner, surveyed 611 voters in the county, with a margin of error of 3.96 percent.

So do the results mean people who are hoping for new schools or better facilities can relax? That’s hard to say.

Sixty-seven percent of the people who responded said they’re very likely to vote on Nov. 7 – numbers that would be astonishing if they were to translate to actual turnout in an off-year election. While 67 percent of Mecklenburg’s registered voters cast ballots in last year’s presidential election, turnout is traditionally below 20 percent in years that feature only local races.

The last time CMS got bond approval was in 2013, when just under 18 percent of voters showed up and 74 percent of them voted yes for bonds. The last defeat was in 2005, with 57 percent voting no and turnout under 15 percent.

Jason Husser, director of the Elon Poll, said the high percentage saying they’ll vote is “an extreme case of social desirability bias” – that is, the tendency some people have to give answers that make them look better.

So the district’s construction hopes may still hang on who goes to the polls.

Opponents have been vocal, including residents who say the package doesn’t do enough for northern Mecklenburg County. The Huntersville Town Board voted to oppose the bond, the Cornelius Board of Commissioners is expected to do so and the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce is still wrestling with the matter, after members failed to agree Monday on whether to oppose the bonds or stay neutral. Families who were unhappy with student assignment decisions and/or question the plans for school changes connected with the bond have also called for defeat.

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett, who has been one of the most vocal opponents, said Wednesday he suspects the margin will be closer than the poll indicates but he wouldn’t be surprised to see the bond pass. But if the northern part of the county, which he represents, starts falling behind on school projects CMS may see increasing numbers flee to charter, private or home-schooling, he said.

“That is not going to be good for CMS down the road,” Puckett said. “You may win the battle and lose the war.”

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus, which saw all its endorsed candidates prevail in the Sept. 12 Democratic primary, voted Sunday to support the CMS bonds. The Charlotte Chamber is supporting the Vote Yes campaign, with a roster of local businesses and civic leaders on board. The campaign topped its $300,000 fund-raising target and now has more than $350,000 in pledges to inform and motivate voters, said Debra Plousha Moore, one of four co-chairs.

Moore, an executive vice president with Carolinas HealthCare System, said Wednesday she’s happy to hear the poll found strong support, but that won’t change the strategy.

“We do not take this for granted,” she said. “We’re going to work up till the last vote.”

Bond support varied by political affiliation, with the poll finding that 86 percent of Democrats and 66 percent of Republicans said they support the bond, with 10 percent of Democrats and 26 percent of Republicans voicing opposition. Independents fell in between.

Mecklenburg GOP Chairman Chris Turner said the party hasn’t taken a stand on CMS bonds because there’s no clear consensus.

Voters who responded to the Elon poll identified education as their top priority for the next mayor of Charlotte to address, even though the city has no direct responsibility for education. The state and county provide operating money, and Mecklenburg County commissioners will be the ones to dole out any construction money that’s approved in November.

The Elon poll didn’t ask about the school board race. Six of the board’s nine seats are up for election in a nonpartisan race Nov. 7.

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