Debate turns heated over Wake school bonds

khui@newsobserver.comOctober 4, 2013 

— In front of a largely skeptical audience Thursday, a leader of the group promoting the $810 million Wake County school construction bond issue made a passionate plea for residents to vote “yes” Tuesday.

Phil Zachary, co-chairman of the Friends of Wake County, asked the Republican Women of Cary and Southwestern Wake to set aside their concerns about the bonds to ensure the health of the community. His remarks were punctuated by argumentative exchanges with the audience, who repeatedly said “no” to his remarks.

“We have 20,000 new students coming to Wake County in the next five years,” Zachary said at Prestonwood Country Club. “Like it or not, they’re coming. Like it or not, it’s mandated that they have a place to sit, that they have the services necessary.”

In contrast, the speakers who opposed the bonds were applauded.

“It won’t be the end of the world if we don’t approve this particular bond,” said former school board Chairman Ron Margiotta. “The sky won’t fall.”

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.

The bond issue has divided local Republicans, some of whom are skeptical of the school board now that it’s back under a Democratic majority. Groups such as the Wake County Republican Party and the East Wake Republican Club oppose the bonds. But some GOP business leaders and elected officials, such as the Republican school board members and county commissioners, back the bonds.

The tenor of Thursday’s meeting became apparent within the first few minutes of Zachary’s remarks, as crowd members shouted “no” when he said they should trust the school board and that he was fighting for them.

Wake’s tax rate

Zachary acknowledged that it is “a bad time” to raise taxes, but he pointed to how Wake’s tax rate is lower than those in surrounding counties. Building and operating schools from the bond issue would raise the tax rate by 5.53 cents per $100 of property value.

“I understand that it’s a 10 percent increase,” he said. “But we’re living high on the hog here at the lowest, the lowest tax rate among any of the major counties in the state.”

Ed Jones, chairman of the Wake County Taxpayers Association, made lack of trust in the school system a central part of his argument against passing the bonds. He disputed the accuracy of the enrollment projections and accused the school system of spending too much on the new $75 million Rolesville High School, which he called “a great Taj Mahal palace.”

“We cannot trust this school system,” Jones said. “These people have shown through their actions over the years that they are not trustworthy. The school board and the school administration, they have not used your money and my money wisely.”

Investment questions

Jones and Duane Cutlip, vice president of the East Wake Republican Club, questioned the motives of bond supporters, noting how the Friends of Wake’s campaign finance reports show several donations from groups that could financially benefit from passage of the borrowing.

“The proponents of this bond would like to tell us that this is an investment in our children’s educational future,” Cutlip said. “But from where I stand, for them it’s just an investment.”

Jones said it is a case of people with vested interests “wanting to get big money out of the system.”

The Friends of Wake reported raising $248,990 as of last week, with opponents of the bonds saying they have far less money. But Zachary told a hostile questioner that if people were passionate about opposing the bonds they would have “funded you to the gills.”

The Wake County Taxpayers Association hasn’t filed any reports yet, but officials from the State Board of Elections said Thursday that the group will need to submit documentation of its expenses.

By the end of the meeting, Zachary conceded that he expected everyone in the room to vote no. While members of the audience talked over him, Zachary called a “yes” vote a sign of support for teachers.

“These teachers have been beaten down,” Zachary said. “You know it. You know what’s happened to teachers in this state in the last six or seven months. This is a way for us to show the teachers in Wake County that they matter, to show them they will get the facilities they deserve.”

Hui: 919-829-4534

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