CHARLOTTE, NC (Ann Doss Helms/The Charlotte Observer) - A record $922 million in bonds for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools won approval Tuesday, clearing the way for a surge of school construction and signaling a vote of confidence in the district.
With early voting and 68 of 195 precincts reporting at 9:15 p.m., the bond referendum had 74 percent approval.
"We are taking it as a vote of confidence that we are trusted to do the right thing with our facilities," said Superintendent Clayton Wilcox, who started the job this summer.
The bond referendum is the largest in Mecklenburg history and the second largest in North Carolina. It will grant county officials permission to borrow money to build 10 schools, replace the buildings of seven existing ones and cover additions and renovations at 12 schools.
Bond votes are also seen as a gauge of community confidence in CMS. The school board recently completed a student assignment revamp and hired Wilcox as superintendent.
Mecklenburg voters tend to support school bonds; the last referendum, for $295 million in 2013, won with 74 percent approval. The last time bonds failed was in 2005, with 57 percent saying no.
This year the Vote Yes campaign, led by a coalition of business and civic leaders, raised more than $370,000, well over the group's initial goal of $300,000. Polls found support for the bonds, but supporters weren't ready to relax Tuesday. In low turnout off-year elections, results are shaped not just by what people think but by who cares enough to go to the polls.
And there were signs of trouble. In the northern suburbs, two town boards, the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce and the area's school board member and county commissioner all took stands against the referendum, saying the package does too little for the fast-growing region.
Some who were unhappy with student assignment decisions this year had threatened to oppose the bonds. And enrollment in CMS is leveling off after decades of growth, with much of the new enrollment in Mecklenburg and across North Carolina going to charter schools. Charter schools, which are run by independent nonprofit boards, don't get public money for their buildings, potentially making those families less likely to support additional borrowing for CMS.
But even such critics as County Commissioner Jim Puckett and school board member Rhonda Lennon said all along that the district's needs were real, even though they disagreed with the priorities the board approved.
School board Vice Chair Elyse Dashew said Tuesday night she heard repeatedly at the polls that voters were enthusiastic about the bonds.
"They recognized the needs in our schools are very real and they're ready to invest in our children," she said.
Now that the bond referendum has passed, work will start almost immediately because the county has already approved money to design the first projects. In August 2019, the first pair of projects is slated for completion. The Lincoln Heights school north of uptown will be renovated as an elementary magnet school. Meanwhile, the program for students with behavioral disabilities that is housed there now moves to a new building on the site of the old Statesville Road Elementary.
Work on the bond projects is slated to continue through January 2025.