In the coming school years, Wake County Schools Superintendent Jim Merrill hopes he won’t be doing emergency repairs to a leaky roof at Durant Middle School or canceling classes at Enloe High School when a chiller malfunctions.
When voters approved the district’s $810 million bond referendum Tuesday night, by a 16 percent margin, Merrill got the go ahead to begin repairs like these at 79 Wake County schools. His facilities team will also make plans for 16 new schools in the district, six major renovations, along with upgrades to technology, security and the overall learning environment at the 16th largest school district in the nation.
“I’m pleased our community recognizes the need to keep current,” he said while watching the results come in at a Friends of Wake County election party at the Daily Planet Cafe in downtown Raleigh.
Voter approvals of the school bond referendum and a $75 million transportation improvement bond referendum Tuesday signify the county’s readiness to usher in more growth, political and business leaders said.
The transportation bonds, approved with 69.88 percent of the vote, will be used to widen portions of Six Forks, New Hope Church and Buck Jones roads. The plan calls for sidewalks, bike lanes, benches and other streetscape improvements throughout the county.
“Not only did we win, we won big,” said Friends of the Transportation Bond Committee Chairman Sig Hutchinson to a small crowd gathered at Zinda to await the election results.
He called the average tax increase of $33 per household, “less than a froufrou drink a month.”
About the school bond approval, which will cost the average taxpayer (the owner of a $263,500 home) $145.72 more per year, Friends of Wake County co-chair and real estate developer Billie Redmond said: “This was a yes to children, teachers, learning environment, economic development, job growth, the list goes on and on.”
There was little question that the transportation bonds would be approved—voters have approved the last six transportation bonds totaling $250 million in road improvements. But the Wake County Republican Party recommended a “no” vote, citing poor economic conditions for raising taxes and too many “nice-to-haves” in the plan versus needed improvements.
The school bond had steep and vocal competition. The Wake County Taxpayers Association argued that the district inflated its growth projections and in fact has room in existing buildings for students expected to enroll through 2021. And because $1.8 billion is still owed on previous bonds, the organization argued that a “yes” vote put it on the same path as now-bankrupt Detroit.
Then, a day before the election, referendum opponent and former school board chairman Ron Margiotta told the News & Observer that new schools would be used not for a more convenient option for neighborhoods but to bus students to increase diversity.
In a speech after the results came in, Phil Zachary, a co-chair of Friends of Wake, called those statements “wrong and negative rhetoric.”
Though he feared their comments might have swayed some voters, he concluded the evening speech with a nod toward the region’s progressiveness.
“Thank goodness today we didn’t blow it,” he said. “It’d have resonated across the country in a way we couldn’t afford.”