Is the $922 million school bond proposal in jeopardy?

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The question on the ballot will be fairly straightforward, if long-winded. Do you want Mecklenburg County to borrow $922 million to build new schools and fix up old ones?

But when these school bonds go up for a vote in November, the real question will be a little different, a little deeper. How satisfied are you with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools? Do you trust the school district? Do you think your neighborhood is getting a fair shake?

This is almost always the case when it comes to school bonds, and historically Charlotte voters have supported these campaigns as investments in the community.

But every year is different. Circumstances change. CMS just finished a controversial student assignment overhaul, and every year more families are leaving the traditional school district for charter schools.

Also, the list of projects this bond would fund is not evenly divided across the county. Already, the northern suburbs have announced their displeasure with the plan. It appears like we could be headed for another city versus suburb split.

Will that be enough to sink the bond’s chances?

Back up. What is this school bond proposal?

Local school districts in North Carolina do not have the ability to tax and are funded primarily by the state and county governments. The state mostly pays the teachers, and the counties are responsible for building new schools.

Generally, the cheapest way to do this is to issue bonds — which by state law require approval from the voters of the county.

So every few years, CMS staff come up with a list of the most urgent construction and renovation projects in the district and ask Mecklenburg County commissioners to put them on the ballot.

Voters approved a $295 million bond package in 2013 and a $516 million one in 2007. A $427 million bond proposal was voted down in 2005.

There was one little wrinkle this year. After west Charlotte elected officials threatened to campaign against the school bond if projects in their district weren’t added, CMS bumped up projects at West Charlotte High and Bruns Academy onto the list. (Both schools definitely need upgrades, but there was disagreement over whether this was fair to do.)

That brings the total number of projects in this bond proposal to 29. There are 10 new schools, seven replacement schools and 12 renovations or additions. You can see a full list of the projects here.

Map via the Vote Yes For School Bonds campaign

But as you can see from the map, there’s not a ton going on in the northern end of the county — just one project, a K-8 language immersion program in Huntersville.

That led the towns of Huntersville and Cornelius to formally oppose the bond proposal. The Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce is voting on a formal position this week, but its members are largely against the bond proposal. Presumably, these areas of the county will vote heavily against it.

How powerful is North Mecklenburg?

They do have substantial political clout. Last fall, they were primarily responsible for putting a different person in the governor’s mansion.

Angry about then Gov. Pat McCrory’s failure to cancel the toll lane project on I-77, voters in northern Mecklenburg pulled their support from him and threw it behind Roy Cooper. Those precincts added up to more than Cooper’s razor-thin margin of victory.

Now, the dynamics here are very, very different. It’s just a Mecklenburg County vote. And views on school bonds are not as divided as they are in partisan politics.

Would anybody else defect?

That’s the big question.

Voters in Matthews seem like prime candidates. While they do have one school included in the bond proposal — relief for overcrowded Elizabeth Lane Elementary — the town has actively explored extricating itself from CMS and has pondered creating a special campus for charter schools.

There’s also the potential that people angry about changes in student assignment process could vote against the bonds. Some people in Dilworth are angry about a plan that pairs Dilworth Elementary with Sedgefield Elementary, and some in Chantilly are upset that they were moved from Myers Park High to East Meck or Garinger.

[Agenda story: Student assignment is over. There were winners and losers. What comes next?]

Who’s in favor of it?

All that aside, most of the powers that be in Charlotte are in favor of the school bond proposal.

The Charlotte Chamber has come out “wholeheartedly” in favor of it, and the corporate community is backing the “vote yes” campaign.

The campaign’s executive committee is made up of a diverse and broad selection of leaders, and companies like Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Carolinas HealthCare, Duke Energy, Coca-Cola Bottling, Charlotte Regional Realtor Association and McKinsey have all lent their names to the effort.

The powerful Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus is also supporting the bonds.

People who live in south Charlotte should also be very much in favor of the bonds. They include numerous projects in this fast-growing area of the county, including a long-awaited new high school.

South-Meck-patio-lunch

South Mecklenburg High, the largest high school in the state.

Where does this all net out? Will it pass? Should I vote for it?

While northern Mecklenburg’s concerns are valid, I don’t believe the majority of voters in the county will deem them worthy of sinking the bond proposal.

As the “vote yes” people point out, the northern end of the county has had projects in previous bonds. They will in future bonds. And it’s better for all of us as taxpayers that the system used to determine school projects remain as apolitical as possible.

Plus, the school district’s needs are large and pressing. CMS estimates that accomplishing its full list of construction and renovation would hit $2 billion. This bond will make a dent in it, but a meaningful one.

I think Charlotte will again invest in its schools.

However, municipal elections like this one are always thrown into uncertainty by poor turnout. You never know which sliver of the population will be motivated to go to the polls.

You know what that means: Go vote.

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Andrew Dunn
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