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The Mecklenburg County Commission has approved a $2.5 billion bond package for CMS that will go before voters. The board says the money is needed to add classrooms, replace outdated schools, improve learning conditions and keep students safer in violent times.

Voters approve record $2.5 billion in CMS bonds, despite worries about taxes

The "Vote Yes For School Bonds" campaign gathers uptown to watch the votes roll in.
Layna Hong
The "Vote Yes For School Bonds" campaign gathers uptown to watch the votes roll in.

A controversial $2.5 billion bond referendum for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools won approval Tuesday, despite the prospect of a property tax hike in coming years.

In final but unofficial results, 63% of voters said yes in a low turnout election.

The request, which is designated for 30 projects, is by far the largest ever sought in North Carolina.

Bond supporters say the money will provide better learning conditions and safer schools for students across the county, as well as providing more classrooms for crowded neighborhood schools and high-demand magnets.

Bond approval essentially provides a $2.5 billion line of credit for CMS to build new schools and replace or renovate old ones, to be tapped over the next seven years. County officials expect they’ll need to raise property taxes three times in the next five years as the debt starts coming due, for a total of a three-cent increase for every $100 of appraised value. That would add $120 a year to the bill for a $400,000 home, starting in 2029.

The prospect of a tax hike, coming on top of this year’s revaluation, led to opposition from a group called the African-American Clergy Alliance. Leaders of that group said low-income residents of the close-in “crescent” have been especially hard hit because property values in that area have risen sharply, making it hard for some to hold onto their homes. On Saturday the editorial board of The Charlotte Post, a newspaper focused on the Black community, wrote that the request is too big and that bond defeat would “send a message to the school district … in favor of a scaled-down program that addresses the most pressing campus needs without hamstringing taxpayers.”

A “Vote Yes” campaign organized by the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance raised almost $500,000 as of Oct. 23. Groups supporting the bonds included the Black Political Caucus, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators, the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party, the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce and The Charlotte Observer’s editorial board.

CMS planner Dennis LaCaria said the first projects likely to start construction are a new south Charlotte middle school, a new Second Ward magnet high school uptown, renovations at Northwest School of the Arts and the replacement of old buildings at South Mecklenburg High. Work is already going on at Northwest and South Meck, financed by 2017 bonds, and LaCaria says the new funding will finish those projects.

Beyond that, he says, the school board and staff will discuss next steps on Nov. 14. He said there’s not a priority list that spells out a timeline.

“They’re all really sort of an equivalent priority,” he said. “Everything else from that point on is logistics. It’s cash flows. It’s which school opens (in which school year) based on the design and construction and permitting and rezoning timeline.”

This year's vote was closer than it was in 2017 and 2013, when more than 70% of voters said yes to CMS bonds. Some of this year's voters said they had reservations but voted for the bonds anyway.

Jonathan Lang, an attorney voting in Huntersville, said he had concerns about the way CMS plans for growth, but "I think that you need to have good schools, and the way that you do that is with facilities. You do that with building new schools."

Shelly Crawford, voting at the Bette Rae Thomas Recreation Center in northwest Charlotte, said $2.5 billion is a big number "but the way Charlotte is growing and the way Mecklenburg County is growing, it’s essential. We’ve got kids going to school in trailers."

And Henry Mann, a teacher at Thomasboro Academy, said he voted yes because he sees the needs.

"I know that every day, kids are affected by when they walk in school, like you see cracks, you see water leaks, you see some classrooms that don’t have heat," he said.

WFAE's Elvis Menayese and Mona Dougani contributed to this article.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.