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Why Wake County Needs to Take the School Bond to Voters

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I support the half-cent sales tax for transit in Wake County. That's one reason it would be a mistake if the Wake County commissioners decide against taking a school-bond issue to the voters this year in hopes of bolstering the transit tax.

Let me anticipate the attack ad: "Wake voters!" it'll say. "The Democrat commissioners are so determined to waste your tax money on buses that they're willing to shortchange the public school system to do it! What do you think we need? New schools for our children? Or more empty buses?"

No, it wouldn't be a fair campaign. Art Pope's Republicans don't play fair.

Here's the problem. Wake needs mass transit. Our explosive growth requires it. Wake also needs more schools. Ditto the growth, projected to bring 21,000 additional students into the schools over the next seven years.

When Republicans controlled the county board, they blocked a transit vote and dragged their feet on school construction. Democrats won in 2014 on a protransit, proschools platform. They're putting the transit tax on the ballot in November.

The question now is whether they'll postpone a much-needed school-bond referendum for two years—the next possible date is 2018—believing that if the public votes on both, the school bond could undercut the transit tax.

That's a misguided belief, in my opinion. Putting the transit tax ahead of schools is pitting one against the other, and I can't see how transit comes out the winner. The schools won't win either, of course.

Misguided or not, a majority of the commissioners, including chairman James West, seemed to be headed in the wrong direction last week when they met in joint session with the Wake Board of Education.

The good news is, there's time to change course, as two commissioners, Jessica Holmes and Sig Hutchinson, are urging their colleagues to do.

"This isn't about schools or transit," Hutchinson said when I talked to him a few days later. "It's about building the twenty-first-century community we want to see, with schools and transit."

Holmes predicts that voters, if asked, will support both.

Here's where it gets complicated. The other commissioners aren't saying we don't need more schools. Nor are they saying we shouldn't borrow money to pay for them. But instead of taking a school-bond issue to a referendum, they're considering borrowing the money without voter approval.

None of the commissioners wanted to get up and pitch that idea last week, so they left it to deputy county manager Johnna Rogers to explain that the county could issue limited-obligation bonds instead of general-obligation bonds, which have to go on the ballot.

There's nothing "limited" about the county needing to repay money it borrows with those bonds, Rogers told the boards. They'd be secured with liens on the schools. The only thing limited would be the voters. And the interest rates on the limited bonds would be slightly higher than on general bonds.

The difference in interest is insignificant, though, compared to the noxious precedent the commissioners would set by deciding that whenever it's inconvenient, they can dispense with the public. To put it mildly, this is not the way to keep the voters engaged with what the school system needs or is doing. Not to mention that it may get the commissioners booted out at the next election.

But wait! The plan Rogers floated called for using limited bonds for two years only, with the county reverting to the referendum method in 2018 and every two years thereafter. That's supposed to make it OK? To me, it underscores that the limited bonds are a scheme, a quick fix that should be reserved for an emergency.

There's no emergency here. Rather, there's a continuing need to build new schools and renovate old ones, and the process depends—as school board member Bill Fletcher said—on a continuing tradition in Wake that, when the public is consulted, it says yes. "In our community," Fletcher said, "school-bond issues are a habit and are almost always passed."

Don't mess with tradition, Fletcher was saying.

There's another wrinkle. The plan for the limited bonds hinges on the county issuing no more debt over the next two years than it can repay without a tax increase. That's not a legal prerequisite; however, incurring debt without voter approval and raising taxes is not a course the Democrats are likely to favor.

So here's the math. Projected school-building needs for seven years: $2.5 billion, or an average of $358 million a year, not including inflation. County debt capacity without a tax increase: in 2017, $160 million; in 2018, $280 million.

Not enough, in other words, even if all the available capacity is spent on public schools and not, say, on libraries or Wake Tech.

School board members—all Democrats save for Fletcher—weren't anxious to tangle openly with the commissioners just yet. But several worried aloud that, as Jim Martin put it, "the magnitude" of a construction program funded with limited bonds will be insufficient.

"I will keep pushing," Martin promised. "We need to be a community of and, not or."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Bonded Out"

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