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Bonds might get old foes' support

BY T. Keung Hui
by T. Keung Hui on 7/29/00.

RALEIGH -- Wake County's new $ 550 million school construction plan won the conditional endorsement Friday of an advisory committee that includes key opponents of last year's failed bond issue.

Committee members said they would campaign for a $ 500 million bond issue to help finance the plan if the school board would lobby the General Assembly to make two legislative changes they say would help control public school costs.

"The school board's response to the advisory committee's recommendations was encouraging and shows a commitment to build schools without raising taxes," said committee member Chuck Fuller, director of N.C. Citizens for a Sound Economy. "And I look forward to seeing both a bond referendum passed and all of our legislative initiatives enacted." Fuller led a public campaign that helped defeat a proposed $ 650 million bond issue last year.

Bill Fletcher, the school board chairman, said board members probably would support one of the committee's proposals to the
legislature: creating a public authority to oversee the design, construction and maintenance of schools and other county buildings. Board members also will discuss the committee's second policy proposal: to lift the state limit on the number of new charter schools.

The 29-member advisory committee was formed by county leaders last year after voters overwhelmingly rejected the bond issue. Led by chairman Jim Talton, a Raleigh businessman, it included both supporters and opponents of the 1999 school construction plan. In April, the committee proposed a cheaper construction plan with 28 cost-cutting recommendations.

The school board responded Wednesday with a new capital plan that administrators say borrowed heavily from the Talton committee's recommendations. The plan would pay for 14 new schools and renovations at 25 existing schools by 2004, without raising taxes.

All 19 of the committee members who met with the school board Friday agreed to sign a conditional letter of support for the school's new capital plan. Three of them had fought the 1999
proposal: John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation; Ferris Chandler, a member of the Wake County Taxpayers Association's board of directors; and Fuller.

"It's important that we have the group on board," Fletcher said. "But a lot of work still needs to be done to get the bond issue passed. This group can help us let the broad community know this is a good plan."

The county commissioners are expected to vote Aug. 7 to schedule a bond referendum Nov. 7. They will likely set the bond amount at $ 500 million with the rest of the money coming from cash.

"As of today, the program is now on track," said Tony Habit, a committee member who supports the bonds and president of the Wake Education Partnership, a nonprofit support group for the school system.

The new school construction plan is smaller than last year's proposal to spend $ 938 million, financed largely with a $ 650 million bond issue. School leaders say the new plan will keep up with enrollment growing by 3,500 students a year. As many as 12 percent of the expected 98,000 students this fall will be in trailer classrooms.

School officials said they incorporated 16 Talton committee recommendations and did not adopt one proposal.

Committee members accepted the school system's explanation Friday that the remaining 11 recommendations were considered in good faith, even if they're not incorporated into the construction plan.

As the Talton committee wanted, the school system's new plan calls for more year-round schools, schools with smaller square footage and no funding for technology and support facilities.

"The plan they described to us looked very much like what we approved ... ," Hood said. "They've essentially adopted the framework of our plan."

Two areas of contention were charter schools and the new building authority, which both need legislative approval.

The committee recommended the new county building authority after members said the school board had neglected maintenance needs. Fletcher told the committee that he doesn't expect the board to object to this new authority. For one thing, Ray Massey, the associate superintendent who oversees maintenance, supports the idea.

The committee also wants the board to lobby the state to remove the limit on the number of charter schools in Wake County, an idea members say will help keep up with rising enrollment. This recommendation is linked with a request that the state remove constraints over how the Wake school system budgets its funds.

The General Assembly capped the number of charter schools in the state at 100, with 95 charters already issued. Richard Clontz, a consultant for the state Department of Public Instruction, explained the cap was needed because charter schools are still new and considered experimental.

Fletcher told the committee he didn't feel threatened by charter schools. Board member Kathryn Quigg said she would support lifting the cap if Wake also got the related spending flexibility.

Fletcher said he would ask the board to discuss adding both items to its legislative agenda.

As long as the board lobbies for both items, Chandler said, he'll ask the Taxpayers Association, which helped kill the 1999 bond issue, to give its conditional support. State Rep. Russell Capps, president of the Taxpayers Association, said the opinions of Chandler, Fuller and Hood will go a long way in helping them make their decision.

"We certainly want to be a help to the schools and not a hindrance," Capps said.