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CMS pushes for bond vote in 2016

Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools leaders will begin to build a case for a bond referendum this fall—but the issue may be dead on arrival with Mecklenburg County commissioners.

The school district wants voters to approve an $805 million bond package in November that includes renovations, maintenance, and new construction at 29 projects across Mecklenburg County. Superintendent Ann Clark recommended the projects to the school board last month, citing significant need and overcrowding at campuses throughout the district.

But Mecklenburg County commissioners—who ultimately get to decide the size and timing of school bond referenda since CMS doesn’t have taxing authority—are skeptical. Commissioners and County Manager Dena Diorio hadn’t planned on a CMS bond referendum until next November. Diorio told The Charlotte Observer that she has shared with Clark “our position has not changed.”

Nonetheless, CMS wants to make the case that its capital needs are significant—$2 billion over the next decade—and must be addressed sooner rather than later. A public hearing tomorrow, April 5, will offer a chance for taxpayers to weigh in—and it provides the school board with a platform to plead their case, publicly, to commissioners.

The bond package Clark has proposed, and which the school board has enthusiastically embraced, is more than two-and-a-half times the size of the last bond initiative here. Voters approved a $290 million package by an overwhelming majority in 2013.

But CMS leaders believed they were boxed in by the process the county commission used to determine the size and scope of the school bond package. Wake County approved a nearly $1 billion school bond that same year, and the difference between approaches chafed CMS staff and members of the school board.

I’ve written before about CMS’ capital needs, which are exacerbated by a population boom and aging infrastructure. The district’s square footage footprint is equal to 21 Bank of America towers, and a needs assessment found that CMS has $59 million in roof replacement needs alone.

Historically, though, the county has tended to prefer smaller bond packages—like the nearly $300 million ballot initiative in 2013—over big ticket borrowing. Under CMS’ proposal, just one of the county’s school board districts would receive $275 million in projects.

CMS and Mecklenburg County have used a combination of bonds and certificates of participation (COPs) to pay for the school district’s capital needs during the last two decades. COPs, which are secured by lease revenues, are often used by municipalities in years when local governments have capital needs but must work within debt limit restrictions. Generally, CMS has offered bond referenda about every three years, using COPs to bridge the gaps. COP funding has typically stayed below $100 million per year; the one exception was nearly $155 million in COP funding authorized in 2006 after Mecklenburg County voters rejected a nearly $500 million school bond in 2005—a decision many voters attributed to lack of confidence in a dysfunctional school board.

The largest Mecklenburg County school bond proposal approved in the last 20 years was $516 million in 2007.

This year’s bond proposal far surpasses that number—but whether voters will have a chance to weigh in on the district’s request is very much uncertain.

Adam Rhew

Adam Rhew attended Beverly Woods Elementary, Carmel Middle, and South Mecklenburg High schools, all part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He earned a journalism and political science degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. He is a contributor to Southern Living, Charlotte magazine, and SBNation Longform, among other publications. Previously, Adam was an award-winning television and radio news reporter, with stops at stations in Chapel Hill, N.C., Charlottesville and Richmond, Va., and Charlotte, N.C.