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By JOHN NEWSOM, Staff Writer
News & Record
The Bonds for Schools Campaign is a well-organized, high-profile group that is planting yard signs, canvassing neighborhoods and preparing to tap into a $200,000 war chest to mount a last-minute media blitz before the May 2 election.
And their opponents?
Until last week, when a powerful political committee of African-American leaders threatened to tell its members to vote against the Guilford County school bond, opposition has been limited mostly to back-fence grumbling, letters to the editor in local newspapers and a small group of working mothers who are asking friends and fellow parents to vote against the bond.
With only 23 days before the bond vote, it appears as if some opposition is emerging. Although the anti-bond forces lack the power, organization and money of the bond supporters, they say there are plenty of Guilford County residents who will vote no because they do not like public debt, the proposed projects, or any number of issues and conditions involving the local school system.
"I'll vote no," said Greensboro resident Cynthia Coble. "If it was going to help education, I think people would be for it. I think people's concern is education, not the buildings."
If the issue is approved, the Board of Education wants to use this $200 million school bond to pay for construction projects at 35 schools. This work will add nearly 6,900 permanent classroom seats and many other improvements, such as air-conditioning, computer wiring for Internet access, and new cafeterias, libraries and gymnasiums. The projects will relieve school overcrowding and help the school board carry out the redistricting plan it approved last April.
It is difficult to tell how much antipathy there is toward the school bond issue and how effective bond opponents will be. Organized opposition is rare in local school bond elections, Sissy Henry, deputy executive director of the S.C. School Boards Association, said.
"Generally, bond referendums pass, and they pass overwhelmingly, said Henry, who has been a bond-issue consultant to several school boards.
A well-organized and well-financed group lobbying against a school bond, she added, "is usually an exception rather than the rule. It is not unusual to see a bond referendum pass without organized opposition."
The results of recent public school bond votes bear this out. Since 1995, voters in North Carolina school systems have approved 31 of 40 local bond issues. Two counties, Mecklenburg and Union, have passed two bond issues apiece.
In many cases, Henry said, opposition to a school bond fails to develop because a school board made sure long before the vote that most community factions will support its plans. When voters reject bonds, Henry said, it is often an issue unrelated to the bonds themselves that sinks the plan.
That is exactly what happened in 1994, when Guilford County voters defeated a $198 million bond by a two-to-one margin.
The county's three former school systems merged in 1993 on the promise of being more efficient and saving taxpayers money. That same year, the county's Board of Commissioners raised property taxes by as much as 25 percent for some. If the bond had passed, property taxes would have gone up another 12 percent.
One issue proved symbolic of widespread discontent with the new school district. Many voters were outraged that the school board put fax machines in each board member's home. School board members said the $1,200 machines would improve communications. Voters saw them as a waste of money.
Six years later, those issues have vanished. But others have taken their place.
In a press conference Wednesday in front of the school system's Eugene Street headquarters, the Guilford County Citizens Political Action Committee said it would tell its members to vote against the bonds unless the school board adopted its suggestions to help low-achieving students.
The committee, whose members include several of Greensboro's black leaders, gave the school board an April 15 deadline. Board Chairwoman Susan Mendenhall said last week that the school district already has in place many of the programs the PAC is demanding. Mendenhall also said that she did not know what action, if any, the school board might take on the PAC's demands.
If the PAC asks black voters to work against the school bond, the bond could be in trouble. In 1998, the PAC helped engineer a Democratic sweep of local and state offices by getting a record turnout of black voters. The PAC also played a key role in the successful 1995 re-election campaign of former Greensboro Mayor Carolyn Allen.
Marti Sykes, coordinator of the Bonds for Schools Campaign, said she does not think the PAC will derail the pro-bond forces.
"That doesn't really concern us," said Sykes, a Greensboro resident and past president of the Guilford County Council of PTAs. "We've got some people in the black community working to get out the vote."
But people like Cynthia Coble -- who has grown children and who does not belong to an organized anti-bond group -- could prove more troublesome to the pro-bond committee.
Coble said she wonders why the school district has spent millions of dollars on trailer classrooms instead of on permanent buildings. She thinks the salary of the district's new superintendent, $155,000, is too high. And besides, Coble said, the school system needs to spend money on making better teachers, not building better buildings. People she knows feel the same way.
"I know it's not going to the education," Coble said of the bond proceeds. "I think that's what a lot of people are asking for."
Others, like Janet Chandler, are disappointed that some of the county's most crowded schools will get no bond money. Chandler has two children at Oak Ridge Elementary. Though Oak Ridge is the county's most crowded school, it is not on the list of bond projects.
Chandler said she and other people she knows are disappointed that the school board, which has long begged for money to expand overcrowded schools, now says instead that the bond money will help the system carry out its redistricting plan.
"Our school system has gotten to the point that we need to have a bond," Chandler said. "But I'm really torn. At first, I was 100 percent behind the bond. But I don't have much faith in the school board."
A group of suburban working women say it is this sort of discontent that could sink the school bond.
This group, called Parents Dedicated to Quality Education, is working against the bond.
"We're not against bonds per se," said Bonnie Wright, a northwest Guilford resident and one of the group's leaders. "But we're against this bond."
Its members are disappointed that most of the bond money will go to schools in Greensboro and High Point -- not in outlying areas. They doubt the county's claim that taxes will not go up to pay back the bond proceeds.
They are concerned that a bond -- which could rack up at least $112 million in interest over 21 years -- will leave their children with a mountain of debt. They also are skeptical when the school system says it cannot find money to build classrooms in its annual budget of $391 million.
"They've got the money," said Judy Frohnaple, a southeast Guilford resident who also is a key figure in PDQE. "If they choose to spend it wisely, they wouldn't need debt."
PDQE members said discontent against the bonds is widespread, and they have no trouble finding people sympathetic to their cause at the school meetings, youth sports games and church gatherings. The group is spreading its message by calling radio talk shows and using established e-mail lists to send information to friends and neighbors.
In addition to these grass-roots methods, PDQE members said they might take a page out of the Bonds for Schools Campaign playbook. The pro-bond committee has posted signs at several schools detailing the work that will take place if the bond is approved. PDQE said it might place signs at schools untouched by the bond that read, "This school gets zero."
Unlike the Bonds for Schools Campaign, PDQE has no money, few top-level connections and no volunteer force to make speeches or canvass neighborhood.
So can this sort of effort succeed against a well-organized pro-bond group?
It can, as voters in Wake County proved less than a year ago.
Wake County, home to the state's second-largest school district, is generally receptive to school bonds. Twice in the 1990s, voters approved two school bond issues that totaled $450 million. This money helped the fast-growing district keep pace with tremendous enrollment growth. In 1999, the Wake County school board sought $650 million in bonds, the largest local school bond issue in state history.
The Raleigh Chamber of Commerce and several other mainstream civic, business and education groups lined up behind the bonds. But a new anti-tax group, N.C. Citizens for a Sound Economy, led an unexpected charge against the bonds. Several small-town chambers of commerce, anti-tax watchdog groups and neighborhood associations helped get out the word that the bond would cause property taxes to rise by an average of more than $400 a year for five years.
Though the pro-bond effort outspent the anti-bond forces by about seven to one, the bond opponents came out on top where it counted. On June 8, Wake County voters rejected its first school bond issue since 1973 by a two-to-one margin.
"All we did was present that message to the public, and they responded," said Chuck Fuller, director of N.C. Citizens for a Sound Economy.
In Guilford County, bond opponents said they are not discouraged that the Bonds for School Campaign has more money, more volunteers and a head start.
"I think right makes might," Frohnaple said. "If we defeat this bond, we'll be doing what's right by our children."