Oct 30, 2023 - Education

Why the $2.5B Charlotte-Mecklenburg school bond package is going to cost so much

2023 Bond Project Design Concept: North Mecklenburg High School Onsite Replacement

2023 Bond Project Design Concept: North Mecklenburg High School Onsite Replacement

Mecklenburg County voters will decide in about a week on a $2.5 billion bond referendum that would finance 30 school construction projects over the next decade.

  • For many voters, it is the most consequential issue on the ballot this election.

Why it matters: School bonds tend to receive broad support, but there’s some hesitation on this one. It would require property taxes to be raised by 1 cent per $100 valuation three separate times — in 2025, 2028 and 2029. That’s coming after the countywide tax revaluation, and there will be another one in 2027.

The intrigue: If passed, the bond would be record-breaking. Guildford currently holds the record for highest referendum at $1.7 billion.

What they’re saying: A coalition of local African-American pastors are urging their congregations to vote against the bond. Dennis Williams, a pastor and former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools interim superintendent, says CMS should reprioritize its needs. He says athletics facilities, for one, aren’t essential.

“I’m talking with people almost every month about concerns about the living conditions,” Williams says. “It’s gonna get worse with the increase in the property taxes.”

  • Three commissioners voted against putting the bond referendum on the ballot because of the amount.
  • North Carolina’s treasurer said Mecklenburg County would exceed the state’s general obligation debt if the bond is issued, our news partners at WBTV reported.

The other side: The Black Political Caucus, one of the most influential groups in Charlotte, is endorsing the referendum, saying it will improve learning environments for students. Its only hesitation was making sure minority-owned vendors and companies were chosen for projects. The caucus says CMS has been responsive to those concerns.

  • “There are infrastructure problems wrong with CMS,” says chairman Caleb Theodros, adding that it’s “imperative” the referendum passes.

Details: The bond request includes three new middle schools, numerous replacement schools and renovations, and a new medical and technology education magnet high school in Second Ward. It also includes an athletics facility off Freedom Drive with fields and a stadium, gym and pool.

Zoom in: The school bond package should help move students out of its more than 1,000 portable classrooms, relieve overcrowded schools and offer more seats in popular magnet programs, CMS has said. But enrollment in the district has barely improved since declining during the pandemic. It was projected to be around 141,000 this year — down from 147,000 in 2018-19.

Of note: Students won’t feel the effects of most construction projects, according to CMS. New schools or replacement buildings will be built on the same site or in a different location while students continue learning in the existing school.

Flashback: The school board was previously looking at a request as large as $3 billion but the county manager recommended a lower amount.

Yes, but: There are unique circumstances that caused this bond to be so large:

1. Inflation.

Rising construction costs are the most obvious explanation for CMS’ large ask. In 2010, CMS could build a high school for about $52 million. Now it costs $130 million, the district’s construction consultant Dennis LaCaria says.

On top of that, Mecklenburg County attempted to forecast inflation over the time the projects would be built in the bond request.

  • “If we can magically get a check today and build everything overnight, it would actually cost about $1.9 billion,” LaCaria says.
  • LaCaria says the final amount for all 30 projects could still end up being less than $2.5 billion if the supply chain clears up, inflation eases and the market changes. Right now the district is competing for the same architects, engineers and construction workers who are working on commercial projects all throughout Charlotte.

But the construction cost won’t get cheaper. There’s an urgency to approve the referendum now.

  • “The risk is always falling further behind and things costing more,” LaCaria says.

2. Mecklenburg County is largely on its own to pay for these projects, despite the growth.

Mecklenburg County doesn’t get much help from the federal, state or city government for capital funding. And CMS only gets about $12 million each year from the state lottery system.

  • Meanwhile, cities and towns regularly approve rezoning requests that allow for more residential development and increase school populations.
  • Other states require fees for new development to help pay for new schools as well as roads, parks and other infrastructure. Impact fees, however, are illegal in North Carolina.

3. CMS doesn’t want schools that are too big. That means we need more schools.

The school district will only build up to a 45-classroom elementary school for about 900 students, a 54-classroom middle school for around 1,200 students and a 100-classroom high school that can fit about 2,500 students.

  • “Even if we said, OK, let’s just keep adding classroom wings to whatever school we’re talking about, you didn’t necessarily increase the size of the cafeteria, or add another gym or double the size of the media center,” LaCaria says.

4. CMS is limited in its ability to build urban schools on smaller (cheaper) real estate.

In Charlotte, land is scarce and expensive close to center city. CMS is limited in the ways it can build compact, urban-style schools on smaller tracts.

  • By law, kindergarteners and first graders need all their classrooms and amenities on the ground floor. That makes it impractical to build a school taller than three stories, LaCaria tells me.

The City of Charlotte has additional building regulations regarding stormwater, buffers and saving trees, which forces lots to be larger, too.

  • “All of a sudden, now you need 15 acres to build an elementary school,” LaCaria says. “It would be nice to figure out a way to build an elementary school on five acres.”

5. Safety concerns.

The way this country builds schools is changing. Some older campuses need upgrades: security vestibules, stronger technology, and renovations so there are fewer entrances and limited access — which can add to the overall cost.

What’s next: Early voting is happening now. Election day is Nov. 7.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with details about the proposed property tax hike.

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