GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – Voters in Guilford County are making a big decision about their schools: Do they approve a bond and an increase in sales tax to provide $1.7 billion to repair, remodel and replace crumbling schools across the district?
These are two separate referenda, but the quarter-cent increase in sales tax on some items is attached to the bond because it would provide the cash the county needs to fund the bonds. Both of these supplement a $300 million bond voters approved in 2020 to address needs from across the district.
The Guilford County Board of Education has developed a master plan that addresses more than 125 schools and facilities, starting with the replacement of Hampton/Peeler Elementary School and Erwin Montessori that were required after tornadoes destroyed those buildings in April 2018. The list ends with Northern Area Elementary School, which would require $26.8 million to replace.
Those tornado-driven projects are underway, as are others in Phase I, including the controversial move of Kiser Middle School onto property now used for sports fields at Grimsley High School.
School officials had asked for this bond to be on the ballot in 2020, but the Guilford County Board of Commissioners elected that $300 million option. They approved this year’s bond to pay for the full replacement list, officials have said.
Commissioners also said this spring that they would plan to lower property tax rates, a move they said would offset the sales tax increase. The tax bump, which is forecast to generate $20 million, would not apply to gasoline, prescription medicines or groceries, they said, and equates to about five cents of every $20 spent, or 25 cents on $100.
“It’s not a want. It’s a need for our kids, and that’s what we have to approach this as. This is something we have to do. We don’t have an option,” Board of Commissioners Chair Melvin “Skip” Alston told WGHP in December before the bond was approved. “We can’t allow the next generation of our students to be forced with the same learning environment as this generation has been forced to live with.”
But these referenda do not have the support of everyone, with some saying they recognize the problems but don’t like the solution.
When the Board of Commissioners voted to place the bond on the ballot, the two commissioners to oppose it were Republicans Justin Conrad and Alan Perdue. During the meeting, Perdue said the bond would be a strain for the county.
Similarly, Republicans Linda Welborn and Anita Sharpe on the Board of Education voted against the bond. “I think it would take 20 years to even spend this money, so I am not going to vote for it,” Welborn told the News & Record.
Sharpe told the newspaper that she worried about property taxes and suggested it would be better to break the plan into smaller amounts for voters to consider.
In a release last week, David Gleeson, chair of the Guilford County Republican Party, said that “while Republican officials are supportive of upgrades to the county schools, the current proposed $1.7 billion bond issue is ill conceived and unwarranted. … The current School Board has proven they are not good stewards of the taxpayers’ money!”
The plan in Guilford County would appear to follow closely a concept created by former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who introduced a referendum for $2 billion in bonds for statewide facilities, primarily at state universities. Voters approved that referendum during the 2016 primary election, and the first $200 million in the 6-year plan was issued three months after their approval.
McCrory said at the time that the facilities the bonds would replace were “in terrible shape.” He has touted that accomplishment during recent debates in his bid for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate.
Deena Hayes-Greene, the chair of the school board, said she is “in full support of the $1.7b school bond. In addition, the BOCC [board of county commissioners] and the BOE [board of education] jointly funded district-wide facilities and boundary optimization study. This comprehensive school improvement and facility use report is the first study that assesses facilities across the district.”
Why the bond exists
Guilford County Schools three years ago hired Cooperative Strategies, a school facility planning firm, to help examine their facilities and create the master list that is now the foundation for the bond referendum. David Sturtz, a partner with Cooperative Strategies, said that every school was addressed. The average age of a GCS facility is said to be 55 years, built in the 1960s.
The plan for the $1.7 billion is to fund 18 rebuilds, 13 renovations and 3 new construction projects, officials have said. There also would be new technology and maintenance.
Sturtz said Phase I started with Erwin Montessori moving to Archer and with Hampton and Summit consolidating into a new elementary school. Northwest Middle in the Summerfield/Oak Ridge area would move to a new location, and so would Weaver Academy of Performing Arts.
“The first $300 million was a toehold into Phase 1,” Sturtz said. “We are concentrating a lot on rebuild, particularly at those elementaries in the worst condition.”
He said the list originally was created with 2019 costs and inflation calculated into account for the $1.7 billion.
“COVID shot everything to heck and back,” he said. “Cost and inflation certainly have gone up significantly.”
Commissioners tour schools
To become familiar with needs, Guilford County commissioners hosted a series of tours of the facilities at the top of the list and expressed amazement at some of the conditions they found, terming some “unacceptable.” On Wednesday they visited Andrews High School in High Point for what they said was their final tour before Tuesday’s Primary Election. Early in-person voting has been underway since April 28.
They told WGHP that the needs at Andrews weren’t as bad as schools they visited earlier, but they found some students and teachers were wearing winter coats in class and using a portable heater because of a malfunctioning air and heating system.
“Individuals are not going to move here and send their kids to school in this kind of shape,” Andrews Principal Marcus Gause told WGHP.
Commissioners said they saw outdated equipment in science lab classes, non-working equipment from the 1960s, dark hallways too old to repair and unusable supplies in classrooms like home economics.
Candidates weigh in
Five of the nine seats on the Board of Education are on the ballot this year, with Republicans squaring off in two primaries. Four of those candidates, Republicans Demetria Carter (at-large), Crissy Pratt (District 2), Welborn (District 4) and Tim Andrew (District 6) are working together as a slate under the collective Take Back Our Schools, a nonprofit organization that is raising money for the group in an effort to support conservative views of education. A fifth person, Robert Millican, is part of the group and is trying to get on the ballot as an unaffiliated candidate, election officials said.
Andrew, a Republican in the primary in District 6, said in an email to WGHP that each candidate has a separate agenda, but the organization opposes the school referenda on its website and has placed signs promoting a “no” vote.
Each candidate who has an email address on file with the Board of Elections was asked to provide an individual opinion on the referendum, but only three responded.
Hayes-Greene, who so far is unopposed in her bid for re-election in District 8, explained her support, saying, “Here is why I support the referenda:
- “Inadequate facilities impact the delivery of instruction and learning.
- “Air quality and the condition of the HVAC systems have resulted in the loss of instructional time and can impact the health of staff and students.
- “Safety and security infrastructure is a critical need.
- “Career and technical education programs for workforce demands.
- “Residential growth and economic development.
- “Elimination of mobile units.”
Marc Ridgill, a Republican in a primary against Pratt in District 2, said, “Any bond should be on the General Election day when turnout is greater. Placing this bond on the primary is all about avoiding a heavier turnout that is likely to reject it. This was a calculated political move to avoid the majority of the electorate.
“As for the bond itself, it is a double edge sword for me. Our schools are in disrepair but this superintendent [Sharon Contreras, who has resigned] has proven she cannot be trusted to spend money responsibly. This board has no control and refuses to regain control. Until changes are made, I have no confidence in this money to be spent correctly.”
Matthew Kuennen, a Republican running against Andrew in District 6, sent an 800-plus-word statement about why he is against the bond issue (its full text is at the bottom), explaining the 50-plus hours he said he invested in understanding how the bond process would work.
“In summary, I cannot support the $1.7 billion school bond until County Commissioners can articulate to me (and all Guilford County taxpayers) where the $50 million of additional debt service requirements will come from when the housing bubble bursts,” Kuennen wrote. “This amount is equivalent to 7% of Guilford County’s total annual operating budget ($714 million). How will we meet this debt service requirement when overleveraged real estate developers (and homeowners) begin defaulting on their loans, as they did during the last housing crisis? If Guilford County can provide me with an answer to this question, then I will fully support this bond. But until then, I cannot. In his heart of hearts, I do not believe that Commissioner Alston can either.”
Is the bond worth it?
Similarly, former Guilford County Commissioner Alan Branson, who is running for an at-large seat on the Board of Commissioners and who last week filed an election complaint about how the county was “promoting” the bond, told WGHP that the nearly $2 billion referenda are too much to ask.
“I just don’t think currently right now it’s time for the $1.7 billion to pass,” he said, suggesting that commissioners should start with basic needs and lower the price to $700-$800 million.
“The purpose of all of these educational sessions to educate the people on exactly what the quarter-cent sales tax represents,” Guilford County Commissioner Carlvena Foster told WGHP. “The impact to their pockets is very little, but the difference that it’s going to make for our schools is tremendous.”