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RALEIGH -- Wake's school leaders walked into a lion's den Thursday to hunt for school bond votes and to show they actually listen to their critics.
Superintendent Bill McNeal, school board chairman Bill Fletcher and Associate Superintendent Ray Massey alternately explained their positions and defended the bonds as guests of N.C. Citizens for A Sound Economy, a conservative grass-roots organization. It was a tough sell considering that not only did nearly all of the the audience oppose last year's $ 650 million school bond issue, but several also took part in the opposition campaign.
"We came here to have an honest exchange of opinions and ideas," Fletcher said. "This is a crowd that thinks we don't listen to them, much less hear them."
Since the defeat of last year's bond, school officials have been trying to show they've learned their lesson. The result, they say, is a $ 500 million bond issue on the ballot Nov. 7 that will meet the growing district's most immediate needs without raising taxes.
Massey repeatedly cited the role of an advisory committee that helped shape this year's slimmed-down construction plan. That group included bond opponents such as Chuck Fuller, state director of Citizens for A Sound Economy and leader of last year's anti-bonds campaign.
"We're not talking about a plan that's warmed over from a failed bond referendum," Massey said.
McNeal framed the bond issue around the need to provide resources such as adequate classroom facilities to help Wake reach the goal of having 95 percent of third- and eighth-graders at grade level by 2003.
Though the school system has won over the Wake County Taxpayers Association and Fuller, getting the rank-and-file of Citizens for A Sound Economy is a different matter. The skepticism is still high, as shown by the snickering after Fletcher said the board needs the intestinal courage to cut programs or the applause when the defeat of the bond issue was mentioned.
One woman questioned the fancy facilities that she said the school system has built. She said trailers, or portables as she called them, were perfectly fine for education and questioned why Wake wants to reduce their use.
Massey defended the schools as being designed to meet today's educational needs. McNeal explained that even with trailers, children lose time educationally waiting to use overtaxed cafeterias, rest rooms, water fountains and media centers.
Another man dismissively flapped his hands over Fletcher's explanation of why Wake has 13,000 employees for its 97,583 students.
Carol Wilson accused Wake of overstating its academic achievements. She said she and others felt they were getting less value from the schools compared to all the tax money they've invested over time.
"We're not getting children who can read and write and fill out job applications," Wilson said.
But McNeal defended Wake's record and denied bringing any false numbers.
"I'll put our record against any comers," McNeal responded. "I fear no one."
In the end, school officials helped reinforce support in the minds of people such as Manuella Barrett.
"I'm going to support the bond [issue]," Barrett said. "It's not going to raise taxes."
But for others, anger over issues such as student reassignment and last year's tax increase linger.
"They didn't talk about student stability at all," said Brenda Montgomery, who called her daughter a victim of the school system. "They didn't talk about shipping kids all over. I'm not going to support the bonds."
Neither is Leon Wilson.
"I'm still steamed they raised taxes last year after the bond was defeated," Wilson said. "My inclination is not to vote for the bond."