By Carissa Joines
At the very end of your ballot, after you vote for President, Senate, Congress, Governor, Lt. Governor, a whole slate of Council of State offices, State Senate, State House, another whole slate of Judges, Register of Deeds, County Commission, Mayor, Council Members and even Soil and Water Conservation Supervisor, you’ll find three questions listed under the title Referenda. These are asking voters to decide if we want to spend money on our School System, Forsyth Tech, and Parks.
Any time we get ready to spend some money, especially if the word “million” is attached to it, people naturally have questions. Who is going to get this money? What will this mean to my tax rate? Who really benefits from this? Do they really need it? What is the risk if we say no?
So let’s take a look at who is getting what and what the money will mean for the future of our county.
We’ll start with the one that has seemed to draw the most attention: the $350 million investment in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.
First a little history. In 2001, after an increase in students which added 2500 to our rolls, the County issued a $150 million bond. Then 5 years later, in 2006, another bond of $250 million was issued. That was the last time our County spent any real money on schools – 10 years ago.
Since then, we have added about 4600 students to our rolls, but haven’t really expanded or upgraded buildings, or built any new schools. (Ok, technically new schools have been built, but they were funded a decade ago to meet the needs we had identified then, and were not intended to be the answer to all future needs.) Also, only $250 million of the $422 million in needs that were identified in 2006 were placed on the bond for funding. $172 million in identified needs were put off for another bond issuance… Except that 2009 brought a recession, and everyone got afraid to spend money. Commissioner Plyler has stated that in the years that followed, construction companies came begging for contracts so that they could keep employees working, but everyone was too worried about raising taxes (even $50 a year) so the Board put off funding new schools.
All of that means that 17 of our schools are now 50 or more years old. They were built when our school’s current students’ GRANDPARENTS were their age. Two generations ago.
Or looking at it another way – current high school seniors were in 2nd grade the last time we put money into our schools.
Think about that. 10 years ago the concept of a 3D printer was only seen in sci-fi books and movies. The idea that our kids wouldn’t be using paper textbooks but would be reading texts on handheld devices or getting their lessons from a smart board not a chalkboard wasn’t even a consideration. The books our libraries were purchasing were about the bully who stole lunch money, not the bully who broadcast their meanness to the world via social media. Classrooms utilized VCRs on a media cart, not tablets or computers connected to real time information via the internet.
Technology is rapidly changing, and in a system the size of ours, it isn’t realistic to think that our schools can all be on the cutting edge – but that doesn’t mean that our buildings shouldn’t have new HVAC systems, or 21st century lighting, or media centers designed for the use of digital devices, not microfiche and encyclopedias. And in an era when the State Legislature only funds digital textbooks, but not the devices required to read them, the school system really must have smartboards in the classrooms if our students are to access their curriculum.
But wait, aren’t the state and federal governments supposed to fund education? Well, yes and no. The county’s have always borne the responsibility for school buildings, and although the state and feds provide funds, the county is not only not prevented, it is actually expected and encouraged to provide additional funding to meet the needs of its particular population.
What about the lottery money? Yes, the lottery does contribute funds intended for use (which were initially billed as supplemental, not primary use) on capital projects. However, since the lottery began in 2006, all of the proceeds from the lottery ($44 million) have been used to help Forsyth County pay for the bonds from the 2006 referendum (so that taxes didn’t go up.)
Speaking of taxes, how will the bonds impact your taxes? The county has estimated that the bonds will add an additional 3.8 cents on the county tax rate. The example they have provided is if your home is worth $150,000, then your contribution would be $51.75 per year, or about a dollar a week.
So how does a bond work? The basic premise is that a bond is a loan secured by an entity’s (in this case Forsyth County government’s) ability to pay it off over time with tax income received by the entity. The people impacted by the future taxes, and the resulting infrastructure improvements, vote on whether or not to approve that spending, since it will be coming out of their pockets over time.
In the county, the bond gets started when a county department comes to the commissioners (the men and women you’ve elected to make decisions on behalf of the county) and requests funding. If they have demonstrated needs in excess of the funding currently available, the commissioners may do one of two things: take a vote themselves to raise your taxes, or, especially in matters of capital expenditures, take a vote to put the question of raising your taxes for a period of time to you, the voter, via a bond referendum attached to your ballot at a regular voting time.
In this case, the commissioners voted to put the issue of the bond for WSFCS to the voters themselves, so that you could decide whether or not you want to invest in your schools, community college and parks. Two commissioners, Gloria Whisenhunt and Richard Linville (both up for re-election this cycle) voted against allowing the public to decide whether they wanted to make that investment in WSFCS. Whisenhunt said “It’s too high, it’s too far into the future…this school bond is 8 years into the future for some of these promises.”
While it may take up to 8 years for all of the items on the approved list to be implemented or purchased, not starting on these projects will certainly not get them done any sooner. What it will mean is that children now in Kindergarten will have a real, brick and mortar school to attend when they reach middle school in 7 years instead of a trailer or pod, or crowded classroom. It will mean is that students at Mt. Tabor high school won’t face safety hazards while attending a game in their stadium. It’ll mean that our most medically fragile and other high needs students will not have to attend middle school in a high school, but will have a specially designed building as their own school, and the sparkling clean yet roach filled halls of Paisley Middle School will be relegated to the memories of former students.
So back to how we got this bond referendum on the ballot. Prior to the bond request being sent to the County Commissioners, WSFCS identified $552 million in needs within the system. They arrived at that number using data gathered from a variety of sources, including an independent assessment of current capacity, growth trends in the county, the number of children currently present who will be entering (or exiting) the school system, and other measurable data. There was a nine-page color-coded chart outlining the highest need areas, what those needs were, and what order they needed to be fulfilled to ensure we had enough spaces for all of the children, and safe, functional schools across the district.
These identified needs were then reviewed by a number of school system staff, the school board, and administrators. The information was presented to the public at a series of 8 information/Q&A sessions held across the county, and placed on the school system’s website for review. After getting input from the public, careful analysis and discussion over which expenditures would have the most impact and which needs were most dire, consideration given for what would be most likely to get through the political process with the commissioners, and whether or not the school board should submit the entire set of needs and risk getting things funded randomly or based on politics, they finally arrived at the list and amount that eventually made its way through the commissioners and onto the ballot.
During the public comment period, and even up to the final commissioners meeting which held the vote, there were lots of comments and concerns expressed by members of the community that the school board could not be trusted, that this process was rigged for (or against) certain populations, or that engaging in the issuance of bonds was not fiscally responsible. Let’s address those.
Calls for the need for transparency regarding trusting our school board and administration are not needed here. While concerns about the board and administration’s role in student assignment and school choice, segregated schools, equal but inequitable allocation of funds and teachers, delivery of Title I monies, and some other issues of transparency are valid, how we’ve decided to allocate bond money is not one of the places to cry foul. Nor is how we have gone about spending that money in the past. In fact, the highly conservative John Locke Foundation used Forsyth County as their standard for how school systems should responsibly manage and spend money on construction and maintenance. In a paper titled “The Forsyth Formula: Other School Districts Should Learn These Construction Principles” the foundation put a spotlight on our cost management and building methodology, and held it up as the example for all North Carolina school districts.
It’s possible that many people just don’t understand where the money is going (but this again cannot be blamed on the WSFCS, who made effort to inform parents and community members in a variety of ways.) Some of the neighborhood groups and leaders speaking against the bond are the very neighborhoods which stand to gain the most if it passes.
If you want a win against the school system, this is not the battle. A loss for the school system here is a loss for the county, and a serious setback for our children and the future of our community. Not passing this bond referendum will send a clear message – but not to the WSFCS Board or Administration. The message will be to the County Commissioners, and it will say “We, the people of Forsyth County, do not think our schools are worthy of our investment.” Is that really what we want to say? Is that what we believe? I don’t think it is. I really hope it isn’t.
But understand this – our Commissioners (not every one to a person, but as a board) are a stingy lot. Don’t mistake that for being frugal, or conscientious, or fiscally responsible. All of those modifiers include meeting needs or obligations in a careful, strategic and closely monitored manner. Stingy means unwilling to give or spend. And our County Commissioners are stingy, more concerned with protecting their ability to borrow money than they are using that ability to actually spend money on the people and infrastructure of our county. And in the long run, that costs us all.
Literally. Costs us money. Don’t believe me- commissioner Dave Plyler said the board’s unwillingness to engage our debt service could cost us, the taxpayers, as much as $45 million on the courthouse renovation alone. And that one didn’t make it onto the ballot for us to fund this time, so the costs are just going to keep rising.
Even so, $350 million sounds like a lot of money – why do they need that much? According to the school system, the “bonds are to provide funds to improve the safety and capacity of our schools as well as improve instructional delivery.” In many of the school buildings, systems such as heating, air conditioning, lighting, and roofing are outdated. In addition to those structural needs, 1,840 classrooms do not have adequate technology resources and 1,860 classrooms need updated technology resources. So what will that look like for you when it’s all broken down?
Well, every, yes EVERY, school in the district will get something out of this bond. Each one of the 80 schools in the system will receive technology upgrades to provide digital access to all classrooms as well as media center updates, including 3-D printers and mobile furniture.
The bonds will also provide $3.5 million to bring all security cameras on campuses up to the district standard. These funds would also provide secure entries to all middle schools.
The district would also spend $1.5 million to buy land for a future elementary school in eastern Forsyth County, $27 million to build a new middle school on Robinhood Road, and $27 million to build a new middle school near Smith Farm Elementary.
The district would spend $3 million to add six prekindergarten classrooms at a location to be determined and expand service to 108 children.
The project list includes money for capital and operational improvements, renovations and additions to existing schools, and projects to increase safety and transportation access to some schools, in total impacting 45 schools, as seen on this map and outlined in the list below.
- Ashley Academy would receive $900,000 to pay for design plans for a future Ashley.
- Bolton Elementary would receive $150,000 to renovate its restrooms.
- Brunson Elementary would receive $25.2 million to build a replacement school with additional capacity, including prekindergarten classrooms.
- Carver High would receive $950,000 to replace its HVAC control system and install an ERV ventilation unit in the gym.
- Cash Elementary would receive $800,000 to replace its roofs.
- Clemmons Elementary would receive $150,000 to replace its electric boiler and pumps.
- Clemmons Middle would receive $500,000 to replace its ERV ventilation unit.
- The Downtown School would receive $240,000 to replace the roof on its 1992 classroom building.
- Easton Elementary would receive $9 million to add 12 classrooms, 2 pre-K classrooms and a new cafeteria, as well as $110,000 to replace the roof on the kindergarten building.
- East Forsyth High would receive $20.1 million for extensive renovations, plus another $725,000 to update heat and air-conditioning units in the 1000 building and gym.
- Forest Park Elementary would receive $2.2 million to replace its roof, boiler, heat pumps, HVAC controls, generator and install ERV ventilation units.
- Glenn High would receive $3 million to repair its stadium.
- Griffith Elementary would receive $6.9 million to add 12 classrooms, 2 pre-K classrooms and expand its cafeteria, as well as $870,000 to replace the roofs on two buildings.
- Hall-Woodward Elementary would receive $210,000 to renovate restrooms.
- Jefferson Elementary would receive $160,000 to replace its generator.
- Jefferson Middle would receive $1.6 million to replace its HVAC control system, replace boilers, pumps, and a hot water heater and tank, and upgrade the lighting and renovate the restrooms in the 1968 building.
- John F. Kennedy High would receive $18.3 million for extensive renovations to its career-tech classrooms.
- Kernersville Elementary would receive $2.1 million to update electrical and mechanical systems, replace its generator, renovate its kitchen, replace boilers and upgrade ceilings and lighting.
- Kimberley Park Elementary would receive $250,000 to upgrade the lighting in the main building and auditorium.
- Konnoak Elementary would receive $19 million to build a partial replacement school.
- Lewisville Elementary would receive $4.1 million to replace the roof on the front building, gym and auditorium and replace windows, doors, floors, ceilings, lights, HVAC systems and controls.
- Lowrance Middle and Paisley IB Magnet would receive $47 million to build two replacement schools under one roof that would share space on Paisley’s campus.
- Meadowlark Elementary would receive money to improve traffic flow in and out of campus
- Meadowlark Middle would receive $40,000 to upgrade the lighting in the gym plus additional money to improve traffic flow in and out of campus.
- Mineral Springs Elementary would receive $200,000 to replace its gym air conditioning unit.
- Mount Tabor High would receive $3 million to repair its stadium and $700,000 to renovate its kitchen.
- North Forsyth High would receive $17 million to renovate its 1963 building (less the gym) and $545,000 to upgrade exterior lighting and install an ERV ventilation unit in the gym.
- North Hills Elementary would receive $90,000 to replace its emergency communications system.
- Old Richmond Elementary would receive $125,000 to replace the electrical service in its kitchen and upgrade lighting.
- Parkland High would receive $1.9 million to renovate restrooms and replace electrical service in the 1965 building, install an ERV ventilation unit in the gym, replace a chiller and cooling tower, and renovate the kitchen, plus additional money for traffic improvements.
- Petree Elementary would receive $160,000 to replace its generator.
- Philo-Hill Magnet would receive $17.1 million for extensive renovations.
- Piney Grove Elementary would receive $1.8 million to replace a heat pump, generator, water heaters, emergency communications system and roof.
- Reynolds High would receive $160,000 to replace its generator, plus additional money to improve pedestrian safety around its campus.
- Sedge Garden Elementary would receive $800,000 to replace the roof on its 1978 building.
- Southeast Middle would receive $40,000 to upgrade the lighting in gym, plus additional money to improve traffic flow in and out of the school.
- South Fork Elementary would receive $200,000 to upgrade the lighting in the main building.
- Union Cross Elementary would receive $1.1 million to replace its water heater and roof.
- Vienna Elementary would receive $200,000 to replace the gym roof.
- Walkertown Elementary would receive $3.2 million to replace the generator, roofs, boiler, heat pumps, ERV ventilation unit and HVAC control system and improve student pick-up and drop-off.
- Ward Elementary would receive $6.9 million to add 12 classrooms, 2 pre-K classrooms and expand its cafeteria.
- West Forsyth High would receive $1.5 million to install an ERV ventilation unit in the gym, replace the air conditioning and heat in the 900 building and renovate the kitchen.
- Wiley Magnet Middle would receive $9.3 million to replace its gym and add six STEAM classrooms and $510,000 to replace its HVAC control system and generator, plus additional money to improve pedestrian safety around its campus.
- Winston-Salem Preparatory Academy would receive $1.1 million to renovate its kitchen and upgrade a storage tank.
To see a specific school-by-school list of every expenditure outlined in the bond, click HERE.
We can’t forget the other two bonds on the ballot this year – the Forsyth County Community College Bond and the Forsyth County Parks and Recreational Facilities Bonds. These two have been much less controversial and actually received no public comments when presented to the commissioners. Here is what each of those bonds would provide the county residents:
Forsyth Tech will get funds for:
A new Aviation Center at Smith Reynolds Airport that will provide classroom, shop, and laboratory space for technology education and training serving the aviation and aerospace manufacturing and service industries (including FAA certified training)
A transportation center expansion adding shop, laboratory, classroom and office space to support the growing Automotive Technology, Diesel and Heavy Equipment, Motorcycle Service, and Race Car Technology programs
Extensive Main Campus renovations to support new programs, provide academic support, and upgrade infrastructure and technology.
A Learning Commons on Main Campus with a new library, student meeting rooms and study spaces, technology-rich design and maker spaces, and a faculty and community learning commons.
The Parks System will get funds for:
Tanglewood to receive expansion of trails, roadway improvements and golf course renovations.
Playground replacements and additions at 6 locations:
Walkertown Community Park
Kernersville Lake Park
Union Cross Park
Old U.S. 421 River Park
C.G. Hill Memorial
Triad Park would have a 1-mile Greenway pathway paved through Triad Park.
Horizons Park would receive the first phase in planning, developing and implementing the new facilities at 492-acre Horizons Park, the second largest park in Forsyth County.
A Multi-use Agricultural Event Center will be designed and built to accommodate agricultural events such as equestrian and livestock shows as well as a meeting space for a variety of other events.
Each bond is on the ballot for a separate vote. A vote yes means you are approving of the listed bond. A vote no means that you are not approving of the listed bond. The exact wording of the Referenda questions is as follows:
Shall the order adopted on August 8, 2016, authorizing not exceeding $350,000,000 SCHOOL BONDS of the County of Forsyth, North Carolina, plus interest, for the purpose of providing funds, together with any other available funds, for acquiring, constructing, improving, expanding, renovating and equipping public school facilities in said County, including the acquisition of any related land, rights of way and equipment, and providing that additional taxes may be levied in an amount sufficient to pay the principal of and interest on said bonds, be approved?
Shall the order adopted on August 8, 2016, authorizing not exceeding $65,000,000 COMMUNITY COLLEGE BONDS of the County of Forsyth, North Carolina, plus interest, for the purpose of providing funds, together with any other available funds, for acquiring, constructing, improving, expanding, renovating and equipping community college facilities in said County, including the acquisition of any related land, rights of way and equipment, and providing that additional taxes may be levied in an amount sufficient to pay the principal of and interest on said bonds, be approved?
Shall the order adopted on August 8, 2016, authorizing not exceeding $15,000,000 PARKS AND RECREATIONAL FACILITIES BONDS of the County of Forsyth, North Carolina, plus interest, for the purpose of providing funds, together with any other available funds, for acquiring, constructing, improving, expanding, renovating and equipping parks and recreational facilities inside and outside the corporate limits of said County, including, without limitation, the acquisition of any related land, rights of way and equipment, and providing that additional taxes may be levied in an amount sufficient to pay the principal of and interest on said bonds, be approved?