Residents, commissioners, school officials weigh in on proposed $125 million school bond referendum
Commissioner Gene Houpe (left) talks during Tuesday's public hearing on the proposed school bond, as commissioners Tommy Bowles, James Mallory Marvin Norman look on.
BY KARISSA MILLER
Iredell County residents had a chance to weigh in on whether or not they would support placing an estimated $125 million school bond referendum on the ballot in 2020 during Tuesday’s Board of County Commissioners meeting.
A large crowd of educators, parents, community leaders and boards of education members proved themselves to be respectful and tolerant of each other’s views during the meeting. A majority of the crowd was there to support placing a bond referendum on the ballot.
The decision to hold a public hearing came after Iredell-Statesville Schools, Mooresville Graded School District and Mitchell Community College boards all approved resolutions in support of a bond referendum for school construction projects last month.
The proposal includes $80 million for a new I-SS high school in the southern end of the county, $35 million for a new middle school for MGSD and $10 million for Mitchell. The overall cost reflects the issuance of the bonds as well.
PREPARING FOR MORE GROWTH
Iredell County's growing population has prompted commissioners to consider placing a school bond referendum before voters in the spring.
According to officials, as of January 1, 2019, there is a potential to add 11,000 new homes in the southern end of the county as subdivision projects are under review or in the early stages of development.
Based on housing unit development maps, many of the new homes planned will be located in Troutman and Mooresville.
School officials are concerned because many of the schools are already crowded or at capacity, and the new housing will further drive up school enrollment.
The Iredell County Facilities Task Force, a volunteer group of citizens from all over the county, developed the construction priorities list for each school system.
The facility task force created a blueprint that outlines maintenance and facility needs for the schools for the next 10 years. However, the priorities addressed in the bond only cover Phase I needs.
Chairman James Mallory called the bond a “capacity only bond.”
Mallory said that the projects will create additional seats for students. The chairman also said that the county’s financial team estimates that property taxes would have to be increased by 1 cent to pay for the principal and interest on the bonds.
SCHOOL OFFICIALS DISCUSS NEED FOR NEW FACILITIES
I-SS Superintendent Brady Johnson, MGSD Stephen Mauney and Mitchell President Tim Brewer each addressed the crowd.
The job of a superintendent "is to provide them with a sound education while keeping them safe and meeting their needs,” Mauney said. “One of the greatest responsibilities is partnering with our families to ensure that this happens … we take this responsible very seriously.”
Mooresville Middle School’s enrollment is 1,040 students, an increase of 350 students over the past 10 years. Every classroom is being used for instruction and that the cafeteria and hallways are very crowded, Mauney said.
“I know these decisions are tough ones and affect all of us. The decision becomes much easier when we keep the children at the forefront of our why,” he said.
Johnson said he would be glad to walk any citizen around Lake Norman High and South Iredell High schools to see the overcrowding firsthand. The district has been relying on mobile classroom units for many years and it’s time to talk about brick and mortar, he said.
The priorities for school facilities were made by the task force, he stressed.
“They are all citizens who volunteer their time over the two-year period, making recommendations and identifying the most critical needs in the school system,” he explained.
Johnson closed by stating, “I hope the debate doesn’t end here tonight. That it goes beyond these walls and goes to the citizens who can decide whether or not they want to invest in education.”
Mitchell Community College has led the county in training law enforcement, firefighters and paramedics for years, Brewer said.
“Our programs have reached their maximum capacity for where they are currently located. Most of these programs are housed in the D. Matt Thompson basement,” he added.
According to Brewer, the college also needs a dedicated space for driving training for those programs.
TO BUILD OR NOT TO BUILD
Commissioner Ken Robertson, a supporter of the bond referendum, made the case for funding school construction.
In a nutshell, Robertson said if the bond isn’t approved by voters, students will be bussed all over the county to relieve overcrowding.
“If we don’t deal with this, then Iredell County will have to come up with additional funds to pay for gasoline,” Robertson said. “This is a figure that’s in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Either way, we are writing checks.”
The school system will need to purchase additional buses and hire school bus drivers. There is a shortage of drivers statewide, he said.
As an alternative, Robertson said, the county could lease more mobile classroom units. Water and sewer, power and handicap access costs have to be factored in to get the mobile units up and running. And in 10 years, they are worthless, he added.
“We should run our government like a business. How many businesses do you know replace their buildings every 10 years,” Robertson asked?
He implored the crowd to share these details with those who believe that leasing mobile units is the best solution.
The fact is “for someone to think it’s a bad idea to build this high school that the flow of students is going to stop -- now who is being realistic and unrealistic?” Robertson asked.
Chairman Mallory addressed the crowd briefly, following Robertson.
“We want everyone to have the opportunity to share what’s on your heart and the concerns that they have,” Mallory said.
“We, as commissioners, and educators and boards of education can take those comments to heart … and move forward together as a county toward the same commonly shared goal, which is to have the best education system for our children,” he added.
During the public hearing, Lynne Taylor of Mooresville said if the bond is approved, it will create a hardship on her family’s budget.
“I’m speaking out against the proposed bond for education. I don’t want to see my property taxes raised yet again for school construction. Between federal, state and local taxation, my property taxes are at an all-time high and my household income hasn’t risen to support all of this,” Taylor explained.
Furthermore, she asked that a financial audit be conducted of the school systems and how they are spending their money.
Aruna Saminathan, a Lake Norman High School junior, said that she knows firsthand that Lake Norman High is at maximum capacity.
The Advanced Placement Psychology class at the school has 50 students.
“Can a teacher really pay attention and meet each student’s needs?” she asked.
Voters must ask themselves how big can these classes get until the quality of education is affected, Saminathan said. “I do believe in five to 10 years we definitely need a new high and I support this bond,” she added.
Other community members cited school audits, a lack of trust in school administrators, the need for transparency and being double taxed as a resident of the Mooresville Graded Schools District, as reasons to oppose a bond referendum.
Bill Balatow, a realtor, said he will ask citizens to vote overwhelmingly yes for their children’s economic future – giving their children a reason to come back to the area and do great things for this county.
Shannon Viera, president of the Greater Statesville Chamber of Commerce and a parent of students in I-SS, said in order to grow residents must make education our No. 1 priority.
Viera said great schools encourage business development and if a big company is considering locating here, the first thing they want to hear about is the schools. “I know I did,” she said, referencing her move almost a year ago.
“We know that great schools increase our property values, decreases crime, encourages our family and residents to stay and be engaged. That is what education does,” Viera said.
Following the public hearing, commissioners unanimously approved a motion to formally begin the process of adopting a calendar for the bond referendum at their next meeting. There will be another public hearing before commissioners vote to consider putting the bond referendum on the March 2020 ballot.