Voters will get a chance to rule on a $160 million school bond on the November 2014 ballot despite opposition voiced by New Hanover County Commission Chairman Woody White.
The bond will fund improvements to New Hanover County schools, including a $7.3 million project to renovate and expand Wrightsville Beach School facilities.
County finance director Lisa Wurtzbacher reported $160 million is the most the county can present to the public without exceeding its internal debt limit. Wurtzbacher estimated the tax impact of the bond’s debt requirement would add 3 cents to the county’s tax rate, although it could be as low as 0.5 cents and as high as 4.5 cents.
White acknowledged the school system’s needs but said he could not accept the tax hike needed to meet the debt obligation.
“I’m just not going to vote to raise taxes in a recovering economy. It’s that simple,” White said during the June 2 meeting.
School board chair Don Hayes said he was upset when he heard White would not support the bond after months of cooperation and negotiations.
“[It] was very frustrating to me because we’ve been talking about this thing for about a year and a half. Now all of a sudden he’s not going to be in favor of it,” Hayes said during a May 30 phone interview.
Commissioner Jonathan Barfield Jr. pledged to uphold the wishes of citizens, even if it requires a raise in the tax rate. He suggested citizens acknowledge and accept a tax raise when they vote in favor of a bond.
Although the recommended budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year maintains the current tax rate of 55.4 cents per $100, a 5 cent increase will be necessary before the 2015-16 fiscal year begins. County manager Chris Coudriet said he would recommend an early adoption of the increase if the bond is approved to begin building the county’s debt reserve. White reiterated that could mean an overall tax increase of 9 cents.
The commissioners’ 3-1 vote to approve the question for a referendum is only a formality. County attorney Wanda Copley confirmed the bond must be presented to voters if the school board formally requested it, but commissioners can control debt issuance if voters approve the bond.
Additions and renovations to Wrightsville Beach School are at the bottom of a list of 14 priorities included in the current cap of $160 million. If approved, the school will undergo a $7.3 million project during the 2018-19 school year, expanding and modernizing existing space to move classes currently held in mobile units and the nearby Wrightsville Beach Baptist Church back into the building.
Aimee Jones, Wrightsville Beach School Foundation president and mother of two students at the school, said she hopes the bond will be approved to preserve the special role the school plays in the community.
“It keeps it a real town, as far as being a beach community where there are local residents … instead of just a bunch of people who come for vacation,” Jones said during a May 30 phone interview.
While Jones praised the curriculum and teachers at Wrightsville Beach School, she questioned how well students can learn in the current environment.
“What goes on around them affects how much they’re going to pay attention. There is a lot of pressure on these kids at a young age [on top of]being in overcrowded classes or having to learn outside a classroom. They need seats for children,” Jones said.
A public hearing for the bond is tentatively scheduled during an Aug. 11 meeting.