The Guilford County Board of Education asked the Guilford County Board of Commissioners to put a $1.6 billion school bond referendum on the November ballot and the commissioners responded by voting to start the process for placing a maximum bond referendum of $300 million on the ballot.

That move angered many school officials and school advocates. However, the six county commissioners who approved the motion say that in absolutely no way was it a slight to the schools.

One point that seems almost completely lost in the heated debate is that the commissioners who backed the move stated emphatically that this wasn’t all the money the county would put on the ballot for school repairs and new construction. Instead, this was all the money they would put on the ballot right now – at a time of one of the biggest economic disasters in history and at a point when the future of the economy is completely unknowable.

The commissioners who approved the $300 million maximum at the board’s Thursday, May 21 meeting emphasized that the Board of Commissioners can come back with another school bond referendum in 2022, when there will likely be much more clarity regarding the future of the economy.

Also, they point out, it takes a very good while to spend $300 million on construction and this would be an excellent start for addressing the most pressing school issues. The commissioners also state that it will take a good while to run through $300 million given the current pandemic and the shortage of construction teams in recent years.

There’s also the fact that – with the brutal blow to the economy this year – voters are much more likely to pass a $300 million bond than a $1.6 billion bond. If the county put a $1.6 billion bond on the ballot and the referendum was voted down, that would allow the schools to raise exactly $0 for the projects.

Commissioner Hank Henning said this week that $300 is a way to start the process of meeting school construction and repair needs, while also raising an amount that the county feels confident it can pay back.

“I’m tired of this notion that $300 million is chump change,” Henning said. “Some people need to chill out – it’s $300 million.”

He added that, when the county and the schools were jointly studying the amounts needed, a funding level of around $260 million was one that could allow the school system to meet its most pressing facilities needs.

No commissioner is saying that $300 million is enough to meet all school needs– instead they’re saying that $300 million is a way to start the process in a fiscally sound manner at a time when the county is worried about funding its other critical services given massive revenue shortfalls due to the pandemic.

When Commissioner Alan Branson made the motion for the $300,000 referendum at the May 21 meeting, he said: “What I am proposing is a phased approach that allows the projects to move forward in a timely manner and allows the community to absorb the hit of the school bond on a tax basis given the economic crisis we are facing.”

Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips also said the county can raise more money in two years.

“Here’s what we know,” Phillips said. “Our citizens are in the midst of a daily battle with an unprecedented public health crisis. We also know that, because of this pandemic, we find ourselves in the middle of an economic recession.”

Phillips said it would be late this year or, more likely, deep into 2021, before the county knows the full extent of the economic fallout.

“Whatever we recommend tonight is not the end to all school bond opportunities for Guilford County – another opportunity will be available again in 2022 and every two years thereafter,” the chairman said.

When the school board made the request for a $1.6 billion bond referendum to be placed on the ballot, the economy was roaring and it was just days before everything in the country shut down instantly like someone had turned off a giant light switch.