The Guilford County school board passed a resolution on Tuesday to request that county commissioners to put a $1.6 billion bond referendum on the November ballot to help fix and rebuild schools across the county.
The Guilford County School Board took the first step needed on Tuesday evening to issue funds to help rebuild and repair dozens of schools within the county.
The resolution passed 7 to 2; it requests that a school-bond referendum for $1.6 billion be put on the November ballot, for voters to consider during the general election.
Republicans Linda Welborn of District 4 and Anita Sharpe of District 2 were the two “no” votes. According to the presentation delivered at the school board meeting, the proposed $1.6 billion would include money for acquiring land for seven sites, rebuilding, replacing or fully renovating 38 schools, building three new schools and conducting two priority repairs.
To prioritize the projects, the school board took into account a facilities study conducted by an independent contractor last year that found that many of the schools in the county were in poor condition, and ill-equipped to properly educate students. Using criteria like building condition, site condition, educational suitability and technological readiness, the study found that of the 126 schools in the system, 34 of them — or 27 percent — received combined scores of less than 60, placing them in the “unsatisfactory” category.
The study found that overall, the county had a $2 billion need to fix or rebuild all necessary facilities. According to the school board’s report (which can be downloaded below), all 34 of the schools that got unsatisfactory scores will be improved in some way using the proposed $1.6 billion bond referendum, if it is accepted by the county commissioners and is passed by voters in November. The schools that scored the lowest and are thus pegged to be rebuilt or get full renovations are located all across the county with each district represented regardless of race of income level. Some schools like Grimsley High School and Sternberger Elementary were built more than 60 years ago and have not had significant updates since their original construction.
“When your basic needs aren’t met, how can you learn?” asked Dania Ermentraut, a parent who has three children in Guilford County Schools, after a recent county commission meeting on March 5. Her son, Asher, who attended the county commission meeting with her, described some of the conditions at his school, Lincoln Academy, which received a combined score of 66 and is slated for a full renovation according to the school board’s prioritization document.
“The bathrooms are insane,” said Asher. “I wouldn’t go in there unless I really had to. The doors are like two feet tall and they don’t close.”
Asher also said that the heat doesn’t work reliably, and how one time last year, his hands got so cold that he couldn’t hold his pencil.
“I can’t focus on learning,” he said.
Several concerned parents and teachers attended the county commission meeting last week as well as the school board meeting on Tuesday.
Riley Driver, a teacher at Jamestown Middle School, said during the school board meeting’s public-comment period that she considered herself lucky to be teaching at a newer school in the county.
“I have a classroom; it has windows, it has a clean floor,” said Driver, who was one of the more than 20 individuals who spoke in favor of the resolution. “I am not in a closet like some of my peers. I have heat in the winter, and we have air conditioning in the summer. My biggest complaint is that sometimes it’s too cold, so I’m not complaining.”
Parents and teachers, and sometimes students, repeatedly brought up examples of leaking roofs, failing HVAC systems and molding ceilings during the public comments. Others expressed concerns about overcrowding in schools like Ragsdale High School.
Board chair Deena Hayes-Green said in a phone interview before the meeting that the resolution would be just the first step in getting the funds needed to fix the county’s facilities.
“What we’re looking at is trying to begin somewhere because we know that this is a process,” Hayes-Green said. “This is what makes sense to us based on the need, based on the recommendations, based on the schools and the patterns.”
Linda Welborn, the vice-chair of the board and representative of District 4, said prior to the vote that she thought $1.6 billion was too high a number.
“I personally believe $1.6 billion is an unrealistic bond number,” Welborn said. “I can’t vote on this because I think it’s unrealistic.”
Now that the school board has passed their resolution, the county commissioners must either accept the amount requested by the school board or come up with their own proposal, which will include in an application to the Local Government Commission, an office within the state Treasury Department. According to county officials, the latest date that the county commission can wait to submit an application to the Local Government Commission is early August. View the full bond referendum presentation which includes a tentative schedule by downloading the report below.
County Manager Marty Lawing told Triad City Beat that the process of even deciding on an amount for a bond could take some time, regardless of the school board recommendation.
“We have to get all the commissioners on the same page,” Lawing said. “Then we’ll evaluate the request and we’ll come up with a recommendation for our board to formalize, and send a recommendation to the Local Government Commission.”
After the county commission submits an application to the Local Government Commission, the board must set a public hearing on the bond amount so that members of the public may voice their opinions. After the hearing, the commission can either continue with the same amount or change it, but cannot amend it to be higher than the original without establishing a new proceeding for the new amount.
To date, the figure discussed among county commissioners for a potential school facilities bond has fallen at $1 billion or less. According to a report created by First Tryon Advisors for the county to consider, four scenarios are being considered by county commissioners, with bond amounts ranging from $700 million to $1 billion.
Republican Justin Conrad of District 3 said in an interview that he thought the school board’s vote was premature and that $1.6 billion wasn’t even on the table in discussions.
“All we’ve ever discussed is up to $1 billion,” Conrad said. “We have never even discussed $1.6 billion. The board of education can pass whatever resolution they want but they don’t dictate to us what we do, nor do we dictate to them. Ultimately, we will make the decision.”
Jeff Phillips, another Republican and the chair of the county commission said previously that he supports the $700 million bond amount.
All of the scenarios included in the report consider either a ¼-cent or ½-sales tax increase or the possibility of a property tax increase.
Skip Alston said that he is in favor of the largest amount considered by the board — $1 billion — or maybe more. He said that whether he supports more than $1 billion will be determined by whether or not the county commission considers a ½-cent sales tax increase as an option to pay for the bond debt.
Alston said he favors a ½-cent sales tax increase and when the county undergoes its tax reevaluation in 2022, to keep the county property tax rate the same, rather than decreasing the rate, which has been common in previous reevaluations. If property values have gone up since 2017 when the last reevaluation took place, keeping the property tax rate the same would create additional revenue for the county which could be used to pay for the bond debt and for future bonds needed to address the full $2 billion need, Alston said.
The county has to wait for the General Assembly to pass a bill that allows for counties across the state to use a ½-cent sales tax increase to pay for bond debt. House Bill 667, otherwise known as the “Local Option Sales Tax Flexibility,” passed the state House in May 2019 but has stalled in the state Senate. The bill would allow for counties to put up to? a ½-cent sales tax increase on the November ballot and specify that it would be used for public education funds. Lawing also said that the county is considering a local bill that would apply just to Guilford County.
Alston noted that if the ½-cent sales tax increase is passed by voters, that it wouldn’t affect essential goods like food and medicine.
Angie Henry, the chief financial officer for Guilford County Schools, said the county commissioners are not required to move forward with the bond even if voters approve it in November.
“There’s a lot of flexibility,” Henry said.
For example, if the bond referendum is approved but the sales tax increase is not, county commissioners have the authority to reconsider the bond.
Jill Wilson, the attorney for the school board also reminded the members of the separate roles that the school board the county commissioners play.
“Your job as the board of education is to present the need to the commissioners,” Wilson said. “Their job is to fund it. Bonding is one way to fund it but not the only way…. They could fund it anyway they want but, it’s your job to present the need.”
Lawing admitted that even with the school board’s passing of the request for $1.6 billion to fix school facilities, there are still many steps to getting the funds needed.
“The more time we have, the more time there is for schools and the county to educate the public on which projects are proposed,” he said.
However, parents, students and teachers are anxious to see change soon.
“In the last 20 years, we’ve flatlined or underinvested [funding] in schools,” Todd Warren, the president of the Guilford County Association of Educators and a former Spanish teacher at Guilford Elementary, said in an interview. “I would like to see the county commissioners at least match the request. They should be championing this because the need is so great. They know the level of need down to the building. A lot of people forget that we’re a massive entity; the funding should reflect that…. We can’t just keep nickeling and diming this stuff.”