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State bonds for local schools wouldn’t dent CMS needs

School buildings across North Carolina often are in bad shape, but the state hasn’t had a statewide school bond since 1996. County commissioners in rural areas say they can’t raise property taxes more than they have.
School buildings across North Carolina often are in bad shape, but the state hasn’t had a statewide school bond since 1996. County commissioners in rural areas say they can’t raise property taxes more than they have. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

A recent N.C. House proposal to put $500 million in K-12 school construction bonds before voters in November might sound like a boon to a growing district like Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

But I suspect it might prove more of a challenge.

It sounds like a lot of money, especially as part of a $2.8 billion bond package that includes a $90 million science building at UNC Charlotte and other projects for Charlotte-area colleges and parks. And if CMS were to get the whole $500 million, that would cover several more years of school construction and renovation.

But of course it doesn’t work that way. According to Colin Campbell of the News & Observer, the plan calls for $280 million to go to low-wealth counties, which wouldn’t include Mecklenburg.

Another $150 million would be divided among all counties, with the share based on enrollment. That would come to roughly $15 million for CMS, enough to build one elementary school.

The last $70 million would be divided among counties with growing enrollment. That would mean a bit more for CMS, which has added more than 21,500 students in the past decade and projects similar growth in the coming 10 years.

147,769 K-12 CMS students expected this year

166,742 expected in 2024

1,100 mobile classrooms in use now

County commissioners traditionally issue bonds for school construction, as Rep. Dan Bishop, a former Mecklenburg County commissioner, pointed out during discussion of the state bonds. Most recently, Mecklenburg voters approved $290 million for CMS in 2013. District leaders were grateful, but experienced bond envy when Wake voters approved $810 million.

Point being: In big districts, construction runs into big bucks.

According to a February presentation to the school board, CMS averaged $190 million a year in approved borrowing for construction, renovation and land between 1997 and 2007 (the recession put a temporary halt to school bonds). In the coming decade, the district projects $1.9 billion in capital needs, or $188 million a year.

CMS Operations Director Carol Stamper says the board will take stock in January and discuss whether it’s time to start planning for another local bond campaign.

Meanwhile, state legislators are wrestling with the state bond plan. If the House plan for K-12 schools prevails – and if voters say yes – Mecklenburg County will need to come up with a dollar-for-dollar match for money channeled to CMS.

The money may well prove useful, but it won’t last long and it complicates the political scene.

The next time Mecklenburg County puts school bonds on the ballot, you’d have to wonder how many voters would think, “Didn’t we just approve a big school bond?”

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