Voters Decide Bond Issue

Every morning at 10:30, eighth-grade students at West Yadkin Elementary School file into the cafeteria – for lunch.

Because the cafeteria seats about 260 and the school has about 850 students, West Yadkin has had to extend lunchtime from 10:30 a.m. to 1p.m., said Principal James Sheek.

Eating that early affects students’ productivity later in the day, he said. “You find that kids get hungry earlier, so you have to come up with another feeding time for them.”

Educators and the Yadkin County Board of Education point to that – and the six mobile units on West Yadkin’s campus – as examples of why the county needs to alleviate overcrowding by passing a $20 million bond package to build two new high schools.

But tension between the school board and commissioners has caused some to question what is needed. Opponents say that schools aren’t growing that quickly and the county can’t support the 12-cent property-tax increase to finance the bond package.

Both sides have just a few days remaining to sway undecided voters before the election Tuesday.

School officials say that the schools are running out of room for students. Enrollment has increased by about 100 students a year, from 4,913 during 1993-94 to 5,766 during 2000-01, and the system has 26 mobile units, school officials said.

“We’re running out of room,” Superintendent Barbara Todd said. “The costs are going to go up and we’re going to be paying more and more for mobile units.”

School-board members say that building and furnishing two high schools by the 2005-06 school year would cost about $27 million. The bond package would provide $20 million – the maximum amount commissioners said they would put on the ballot. The school board has $2 million saved to furnish the schools.

Commissioners would have to come up with some way of raising the remaining $5 million, school officials said.

If the bond package passes, the property-tax rate in the county would increase 12 cents, from 64 cents to 76 cents, for each $100 of assessed property value. If bids for the high schools came in at more than $25 million, however, the project would be stopped.

Converting the middle schools would cost an additional $3 million each. The schools have a $3 million Qualified Zone Academy Bond to pay for the conversion of Starmount High School. That money must be paid back, but it is interest-free.

Officials don’t know where money to renovate Forbush High School would come from.

Mark Gentry, the chairman of the school board, said that building two high schools is the best way to ease overcrowding. Building new middle schools or elementary schools would not alleviate crowding at the high schools, he said.

School officials say that the county also needs middle schools. Yadkin County is one of four school systems in North Carolina that do not have middle schools. Each of its eight elementary schools houses students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

J.P. Van Hoy, the principal of Yadkinville Elementary School, said that middle schools would offer better electives because teachers would not have to travel from school to school.

“Here (electives) are only offered two or three times a week,” he said. “Teachers spend too much time traveling between schools. It’s not efficient.”

Officials say that adding to the schools is not an option because all the elementary schools – except Forbush Elementary School – are landlocked.

Van Hoy said that Yadkinville, which has five mobile units, has limited expansion possibilities.

“All that would be left would be parking lots or the corner of a ballfield,” he said.

Todd said that waiting will make building more expensive. “Because of the economic conditions, this is the very best time to do this.”

But tension between county commissioners and the school board, apparent in meetings leading up to the election, has surfaced. Thomas Wooten, the chairman of the county commissioners, said that problems started when the commissioners asked the school board to lower its $27 million request but the board came back and asked for the same amount.

Todd agreed, but said that the school board couldn’t build what was needed for less. “This is the cheapest long-term (solution).”

Gentry said that the tension comes from the commissioners having to balance the schools’ needs with other county needs. “There’s tension because we’re asking for a lot,” he said.

Wherever the tension started, only Commissioner Brent Hunter has said that he would vote for the bonds, and Commissioner Lloyd Davis, who did not return calls for this story, voted in July against putting the bonds on the ballot. At the time, he said that the package was not specific enough and that it would be too much of a tax burden.

Other commissioners will not say how they plan to vote. “I think that’s a decision that the voters need to make for themselves,” Commissioner Josh Baity said. “They don’t need an elected official to tell them how to vote.”

Those in the schools don’t care about the source of the tension. They just want it fixed.

“I sometimes feel like it’s the school board vs. the county commissioners,” Sheek said. “(Schools are) kind of caught in the middle and held ransom.”

The numbers used by supporters and opponents of the bond package muddy the waters even more. When the school board originally looked at new high schools, it learned that it would cost about between $60million and $70 million for block-and-brick buildings.

Wooten said that first figure has been a sticking point for many people. “I think that threw a lot of people into shock,” he said. When the board presented its $27 million plan later, “it caused too many people to question what is the truth, what is the need. It has been a hard sell to overcome.”

Gentry said that the school board has tried to explain how it can build schools for less money. “But they specifically told us to sharpen our pencils. We did what they wanted us to do.”

The school board looked at Wilkes County where Pinnacle Architecture built four middle schools for about $37 million. Pinnacle uses steel-frame construction, which lowers the cost because construction takes less time, said Frank Williams, the president of Pinnacle. The company proposed building Yadkin’s two high schools for $25 million.

Some residents say they wish that the school board would be more specific regardless of the cost. Brady Wooten of Hamptonville has spoken against the bond package at several public meetings.

He said he wants to know exactly what the tax rate will be and how many classrooms the schools will have.

Gentry, though, says that’s impossible to answer without the bond being passed, putting the project out for bids and seeing how the commissioners will come up with the additional $5million.

Peggy Boose, the Yadkin County coordinator of the N.C. Citizens for a Sound Economy, has distributed 3,000 fliers raising questions about the bond, each with a drawing of the taxman holding a gun on the taxpayer.

Some of the information on the flier lists a source. Some of it does not, including a statement that $20 million will not complete two high schools.

“They’re not stating the whole thing,” Gentry said. The school board has never hidden the fact that two high schools will cost more than $20 million, he said.

“That probably is a true statement, but the school board is only telling the good side of the story,” Boose said. People need to know that $20 million doesn’t cover everything, she said.

The flier also says that the school board used money from a 1986 bond package to build a new administration building, which Todd said was not true.

“None of the funds were misappropriated,” she said.

State money for the building became available and was lumped with money for the bond package, she said.

Boose also questions the schools’ growth projections. She said that enrollment has slowed the past two years to just several dozen a year. “That’s not no humongous growth,” she said. “We need to look at what the trend is the last two years.”

Todd said that it was better to look at a longer time period. “We looked at 10 years and we did an average,” she said. “That’s probably going to give us the history.”

Others say they think that the school board could expand in less expensive ways. Jimmy Fallin of the Council of Conservative Citizens said that rooms should be added to schools. “It looks like plenty of land to me.”

Some have said that taxpayers are shouldering the cost for illegal aliens. At a commissioners’ meeting, Fallin said, “No commissioner or school-board member was elected to educate the children of South America, Brazil and Mexico.”

Van Hoy said he doesn’t think it’s a majority of people, just “a pretty vocal group of people,” who blame the growth on Hispanic students.

“We’re going to educate everyone that comes in that door the best we can,” he said.

Officials agree that overcrowding won’t go away if the bond package is defeated.

“Obviously, there is a need,” Baity said. “Whether the school bond passes or fails, that need is going to have to be addressed.”