Backers of the Wake County school construction bond issue have raised nearly a quarter of a million dollars with donations from some of the region’s biggest companies and from companies that could benefit financially if the plan passes.
As of last week, more than half of the $248,990 given to the Friends of Wake County to encourage voters to approve the $810 million school bond issue Oct. 8 came from The Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, Red Hat, Duke Energy and WakeMed. The major fundraising edge over bond opponents has allowed the Friends of Wake to mount a coordinated media campaign of television, radio and newspaper ads and campaign mailers.
“We see a strong public education system as part of the quality of life that attracts businesses to this area,” said Harvey Schmitt, president and CEO of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber formed the Friends of Wake and has been the group’s top contributor at $62,500.
Neither the Wake County Taxpayers Association nor the East Wake Republican Club, the major opponents of the school bonds, say they’re required to file campaign finance reports because they are not groups formed just because of the referendum. But leaders of both groups say they have far less to spend than the Friends of Wake.
“None of the people who support us can write $25,000 checks or $10,000 checks or $5,000 checks,” said Duane Cutlip, vice president of the East Wake Republican Club. “They’d be hard-pressed to write a $100 check.”
New schools, renovations, repairs
Early voting ends Saturday on a bond measure that would pay for most of a $939.9 million construction program that includes 16 new schools, six major renovation projects, smaller repairs at 79 schools, technology upgrades and other projects.
Both Red Hat and Duke Energy gave $25,000. A spokeswoman for Red Hat, the software company headquartered in Raleigh, declined to comment on the donation.
But Jeff Brooks, a spokesman for Duke Energy, said it made sense for the company to donate considering how many of the utility’s employees live in Wake County.
“Our support for the school bonds is part of our commitment to having a strong focus on education,” he said.
Friends of Wake received donations from construction companies that have done work with the school system, and real-estate management companies and law firms that work with real estate.
For instance, Clancy & Theys Construction has done several Wake school projects over the years. Scott Cutler, the company’s vice president, said the company gave $4,500 to the Friends of Wake because of its moral responsibility to make sure that the school district has enough seats for all the students who will come.
“As citizens, we collectively think we have to support public education,” Cutler said.
Special interests alleged
Opponents are quick to note the connections between the donors and those who could benefit from passage of the bonds.
“I wouldn’t be surprised at any money they’d raise,” said Ed Jones, chairman of the Wake County Taxpayers Association. “They want the bond issue passed so that the special interests will get their money.”
Schmitt said the donations represent “community interests,” not special interests. He said businesses who want to attract and retain good workers know they need to have a strong school system for their employees’ families.
“The only special interest is public education,” added Phil Zachary, co-chairman of Friends of Wake. “The construction industry is concerned about the strength of schools.”
This year’s pre-election total is less than half of the nearly $520,000 that Friends of Wake had raised at this point during the election cycle in 2006 to get a $970 million school bond issue approved. The group ultimately raised $661,330 – a record for a county bond referendum.
Zachary, who was also a leader in the 2006 campaign, said the lack of a coordinated opposition reduced the need to raise as much money this year. Aside from some campaign signs, fliers and palm cards, opposition groups haven’t spent nearly as much compared to 2006.
“If we had to, we could have gotten another six figures by the end of the week,” Zachary said.