It’s back to the drawing board, some members of the Guilford County School Board say, after the county commission voted last week to authorize $300 million — less than 20 percent of the school board’s requested amount of $1.6 billion — to fix school facilities.
“When you request $1.6 billion based on the needs of a joint plan and they come back with $300 million, there needs to be discussion on how to move forward with this,” board chair Deena Hayes-Green said in a phone interview. “I’m disappointed that the school board’s request was not considered and no efforts to reach out were made.”
Talk of a school bond to be presented on the November ballot this year has been in the works since January 2019, when an independent consulting group presented its findings on school facilities to a joint committee of school board members and county commissioners. While the study found there was a $2 billion need to fix more than 100 school facilities, the school board passed a resolution in March requesting that a $1.6 billion bond referendum be put before voters this fall. However, due to the ensuing pandemic, the white majority of the board of county commissioners voted on May 21 to set a maximum amount for the 20-year bond at $300 million.
The final school bond amount will be decided during the county commissioner’s meeting on June 18. The vote passed 6-3, mostly along party lines, after a contentious debate between the Democratic minority and some of the Republican members including Justin Conrad and Alan Branson. Republicans Jeff Phillips, Alan Perdue, Alan Branson, Justin Conrad, Hank Henning along with Democrat Kay Cashion voted in favor of the amount while Democrats Skip Alston, Carlvena Foster and Carolyn Coleman voted against.
Alston, who spoke at length during his comments before the vote, had searing words for his Republican colleagues, including Branson who made the motion for the decreased amount.
“Three-hundred million dollars is really an insult to this board to consider,” he said during the May 21 meeting. “For the children that are going to those schools with no air conditioning, no heat, mold and mildew, window repairs, it’s an insult to be able to send our children to such a school and it’s really an insult for a commissioner that knows all of that to disrespect our school board by making such a motion…. It shows that he don’t give a damn about our children and our school system.”
Branson and his Republican counterparts argued for a phased approach in the upcoming bond, stating that past bonds with much higher amounts led to mismanaged funds and lack of direction on projects.
“A lot of thought and consideration has gone into the school referendum figures,” Branson said. “It’s been 12 years since a school bond was on the ballot. Even today, we have outstanding project ordinances. We all know that the needs are great but with a billion-dollar price tag, it is plain to see that we can’t responsibly address everything in one pass. We tried the one-and-done process and we just ended back up at square one with very little to show for efforts and projects that couldn’t be completed in a 12-year window.”
Branson also made the point that future bonds could be considered in a few years if projects were completed with this year’s bond.
“The sooner we complete these projects, the sooner we can consider a second phase bond referendum,” he said.
According to a timeline sent to Triad City Beat by Nora Shoptaw, the program administrator of communications for Guilford County School, all of the priority projects from the 2008 bond, which allocated $457 million to improve schools, had been completed by the end of 2019.
Hayes-Green contested the commissioners’ arguments that a smaller bond amount would be more effective for fixing schools.
“We’ve done this before,” she said. “This piecemeal approach. It’s very costly to do it this way. The problem with this format is, let’s say there was a school that needed to be rebuilt. But now, there’s no money to rebuild it. So, we install a new roof or HVAC system but if in a couple of years, the school just needs to be demolished, we lose those improvements. That’s something that could happen. This just means that some projects have to come off the list.”
According to the school board’s prioritization list, which was based on a $1.6 billion bond budget, several schools in the district are in dire needs of repairs, while some need to be remodeled or rebuilt entirely. More than half of the necessary $2 billion in repairs are what the report calls “rebuilding schools on-site.”
Included in Phase 1 of the bond projects was a new Hampton/Peeler magnet school built on the former Peeler Elementary school site, which was heavily damaged and then closed after a tornado struck Greensboro in 2018. Other significant projects that were anticipated included a rebuilding of Kiser Middle School and Peck Elementary as well as full renovations of Smith and Grimsley high schools.
Now, with the drastically reduced bond amount, Hayes-Green said that the school board will have to reconsider which projects will be prioritized.
In addition to concerns about past bonds, Republican commissioners also cited the ongoing pandemic as reason for cutting the bond amount. Branson said sales tax revenues have taken a hit due to COVID-19 and that he was unsure if “property owners would be able to bear the additional burdens of a bigger bond.”
According to the budget presentation at the end of the county commissioner’s meeting, there will be a 12 percent reduction in sales tax revenue for the next fiscal year.
Conrad echoed Branson’s comments and said that a future county commission could put another bond before voters in two years once the economy turned around.
“We are facing uncertain terms,” Conrad said. “We all recognize we have problems within our school system…. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever in two years that this board can’t put another bond before the citizens and at that point if the economic outlook is more clear, then certainly I would imagine it would be a higher number. This gives an immediate respite to the school board; they can take on immediate repairs that we hear about…. But some things will have to be backed off, just like every other business and governmental entity in the United States has had to do over the last 90 days.”
In a follow-up email to TCB, Conrad said if the economy recovers he is committed to putting another bond before voters in 2022.
Hayes-Green also argued that a larger bond would have created more economic opportunity for businesses and contractors during the uncertainty of the pandemic.
“We have to think about how we deal with huge challenges of this pandemic,” she said. “This could have been a huge economic opportunity to get people working and moving.”
Andrew Brod, a senior research fellow for UNCG, conducted an economic impact study for the 2008 bond in which he projected that the $457 million approved by voters then would have a “multi-year economic impact of $657 million and will support a total of 6,238 jobs in one year.” In a phone call on Friday, Brod said he believes the county commissioner’s approval for a $300 million bond is short-sighted.
“Investing and reinvesting in schools is incredibly important for the long-run economic sustainability and vibrancy of Guilford County,” she said. “It’s not just about how many jobs would be generated by the spending. If anyone gives it a little thought, they’d have to realize that the larger investment in our schools goes well beyond the jobs from building, and I think in that sense, this is a very short-sighted decision.”
Brod added that typically 20-year bonds are paid over a long period of time.
“What we’re experiencing right now — the corona recession — this eco-cataclysm is a blip,” he said. “It’s a massive blip, but it is nevertheless a blip. I don’t believe that this is going to affect this area’s long run productivity or economic vibrancy. We, just like other parts of the country, are going to recover from this.”
He also mentioned the fact that the county commissioners do not have to sell the bonds and incur debt immediately.
“It would come back to us and if we look at our economic conditions at that time, we don’t spend the money,” Alston said during the May 21 meeting, echoing Brod. “Just because we put a $1.6 billion bond… but if we see that we can’t afford to pay for that $1.6 billion at that point, we don’t issue the bonds.”
In addition to a vote for the school bond, voters will also have the chance to decide on how to pay for the bond in a separate question on their ballot. For now, the question will involve a vote for or against a quarter-cent sales tax increase. Under current legislation, the ballot would not include wording for what the sales-tax increase would be used for. But House Bill 1113 — with both Republicans and Democratic sponsors including House Whip Jon Hardister, Rep. John Faircloth, Rep. Ashton Clemmons and Rep. Cecil Brockman — would expressly note that revenue from the sales-tax increase would only be used for school facilities. If passed, the bill, which only covers Guilford County, would also allow county commission to combine the two questions — about the education bond and the sales tax increase — into one question. On May 18, the bill was referred to the finance committee. Another bill, House Bill 667, which stalled in the rules and operations committee in May 2019, would allow for a half-cent cent sales tax increase rather than a quarter-cent one.
If a quarter-cent sales tax increase is approved by voters in November, it would generate about $19 million in a fiscal year according to the board’s data. The sales-tax rate would increase from the current 6.75 percent to 7 percent which amounts to a consumer paying an additional penny for every $4 of purchases.
Despite the economic conditions, some commissioners like Foster urged her colleagues to vote for a higher amount, stating that students will have to eventually go back to school.
“When we come out of this pandemic, there will be some families that will be in worse shape than they were before the pandemic started,” she said. “But children will still have to go to school when we come out of this. For some of these children… the schools are their safety nets. They not only get an education, but some of them go to get good meals and some of them have good shelter when they go to schools.”
Darlene Garrett, a Democrat on the school board, expressed dismay at the reduced amount approved by the county commissioners.
“Of course, I am disappointed that the county commissioners did not approve a larger amount to be placed on the November ballot,” she said in an email. “School facilities are not going to improve and in fact, they will get worse. We need to be thinking about investing in our infrastructure and making our schools first class for our children and to attract successful businesses to our county. The people deserve the right to be deciding these important issues, not six individuals.”
The public will have an opportunity to submit comments on the school bond amount during the next county commissioners meeting on June 18 when the final amount will be decided.