CMS bond clash: Urgent need or bad timing?

Some speakers at Tuesday’s hearing pushed for a new high school to relieve Olympic High, in the growing southwest part of Charlotte.
Some speakers at Tuesday’s hearing pushed for a new high school to relieve Olympic High, in the growing southwest part of Charlotte.

A small but ardent group of parents turned out Tuesday to voice support for an $805 million Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools proposal to build new schools and upgrade existing ones.

“We implore you to take all measures to get the bond on the ballot,” said Roger Nolder, who talked about the need for new schools in the booming southwestern Steele Creek area.

Superintendent Ann Clark and school board members say CMS fell so far behind during the recession that a major construction and renovation push needs to start immediately. They’ll vote April 12 on a request for Mecklenburg County commissioners to put school bonds on the ballot Nov. 8.

But at their own meeting Tuesday, several commissioners said they’re ready to say no. “I can’t stop you from asking,” said Chairman Trevor Fuller, but “don’t be upset when I tell you that I’m not going to do it.”

Because the school board can’t levy taxes, county officials have to borrow money and repay debt for school construction.

County Manager Dena Diorio said it makes no sense to rush through a record-breaking school bond when CMS has yet to tap most of the $290 million voters approved in 2013. Her plan calls for reviewing CMS construction needs next year – along with those of parks and recreation, Central Piedmont Community College and other entities that rely on the county for land and facilities.

Meanwhile, Diorio said, county officials are watching the General Assembly, which could limit the amount of sales tax money that Mecklenburg County can use to pay debt.

“The timing of this could not be any worse,” Diorio said in an interview. “I don’t know why (Clark) is so laser-focused on this, but she’s laser-focused.”

The CMS hearing drew 16 speakers, all but one supportive of bonds. Several described the need for renovations and expansions at schools such as South Mecklenburg High, Northwest School of the Arts, West Charlotte High, Collinswood Language Academy and Shamrock Gardens Elementary.

Larry Bumgarner, a frequent school board candidate, told the board he plans to launch a campaign against school bonds.

Some parents and elected officials also are skeptical of a 2016 bond vote, with uncertainty lingering about student assignment and CMS leadership. At a Saturday meeting of the Ballantyne Breakfast Club, CMS board member Paul Bailey was peppered with skeptical questions and comments about the ongoing assignment review. Some said they won’t support bonds until the board makes a clear commitment to neighborhood schools.

The timing of a bond referendum will affect turnout, with a hotly contested presidential election this year and only school board and municipal races in 2017. It’s unclear, though, whether more voters would help or hurt CMS.

At Tuesday’s hearing Rebecca Kucera, co-president of the Collinswood Language Academy PTA, said she’s “thrilled” to see her school at the top of the project list and eager to see a large bond pass: “I believe that CMS has made do with too little for too long.”

But she cautioned that “I know you are aware of the polarizing nature of the student assignment issue.” If that’s not resolved in “a reasonable and constructive manner” by November, she cautioned, it could derail bonds.

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