October 22, 2006

RALEIGH – The Wake County Public School System has missed the mark in developing its $1.056 billion school facilities spending plan. That’s the conclusion of a new John Locke Foundation Policy Report.

Click here to view and here to listen to Terry Stoops discuss this Policy Report.

“If Wake County schools face a ‘crisis’ about how to accommodate growth, then increasing school building capacity must be the school system’s first priority,” said Terry Stoops, JLF Education Policy Analyst and the report’s author. “Thus, one must evaluate the school system’s building plan on its ability to provide seats in a responsive, cost-efficient, and timely manner. In this regard, the proposed plan falls short.”

Wake’s plans often stray from the basic goal of creating new classroom seats, Stoops said. “Enloe High School, for example, will receive a makeover of its athletic facilities, including a new weight room, locker rooms, tennis courts, basketball courts, and a softball field.”

Voters will address the spending plan’s key component next month. Wake County is seeking support November 7 for a $970 million school bond referendum.

Bonds offer Wake County the best method for financing debt, Stoops said. But neither bonds nor another debt option – certificates of participation (COPs) – offer the best method of funding school construction.

“The best way to pay for schools is to use pay-as-you-go funding,” he said. “In upcoming years, Wake County will spend hundreds of millions of dollars on annual interest payments on debt for school construction. By dedicating existing revenue streams for school facilities, the county would be able to use more money to build schools and less money to pay debt service.”

Wake should exhaust other options before turning to bonds or COPs, Stoops said. “The priority for the school system should be to redirect funds away from low priority projects, reduce the size of the school bureaucracy, reduce construction costs, use existing revenue streams, and implement alternatives.”

One alternative involves proposed renovation projects. Current renovation plans for 13 schools do too little to reduce the county’s school space crunch, Stoops said.

“The renovation plan will cost $245 million and add 2,096 seats, equivalent to the size of one high school,” Stoops said. “That means the school system plans to use one out of every four bond dollars for renovations, even though those projects will add seats for only one out of every 15 new students in the next four years.”

Wake should seek more efficient designs for new schools and plan to build larger schools on smaller sites, Stoops said.

Wake should also pursue every construction alternative possible, Stoops said. Those alternatives include charter and modular schools, ninth-grade centers, public-private partnerships, year-round schools of choice, Learn and Earn/Early College sites, satellite campuses, and virtual schools.

“Put simply, the correct mix of bonds, pay-as-you-go funds, facilities alternatives, and efficient building practices would allow the Wake County Schools to successfully meet the challenges of growth for years to come,” Stoops said. “Otherwise, the school system has created a blueprint for failure.”

Terry Stoops’ Policy Report, “Feng Shui Schools: Wake County’s Unenlightened School Building Program,” is available at the JLF web site. For more information, please contact Stoops at (919) 828-3876 or [email protected]. To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or [email protected].