The New Year of 2019 is bringing a lot more to Guilford County than new calendars:  It’s also bringing the start of a discussion about a giant new school bond referendum that some say could amount to a request for a billion dollars.

On Thursday, Jan. 10, the Guilford County Board of Education and the Guilford County Board of Commissioners will get together and talk about the results of a $1-million study on school needs – and that conversation will also be the unofficial kick off of a discussion on how much the schools should ask for in a bond referendum request for 2020.

Before former Guilford County Board of Education Chairman Alan Duncan stepped down from that position earlier this year, he told the Rhino Timesthat current school facilities needs were likely to be in the range of $800 million to  $1 billion.

It’s not clear if current school officials believe that the county’s taxpayers would go for a bond referendum that large, but what is clear is that a push for a big ask of capital funds from the school system is coming.

One hurdle, of course, will be getting county voters to approve a large school bond referendum, but the first hurdle will be getting the Republican-majority Guilford County Board of Commissioners to approve putting a large bond referendum on the ballot in 2020.

Commissioner Skip Alston said that Republican commissioners might not want to think about such a big expense, and a tax increase to pay for it, but he added that something has to be done.  He said the schools have a real need for, perhaps, up to $1 billion in new capital funding, but Alston added that he’s not sure of the right amount to put on the ballot next year.

“The question is how much of that elephant we want to eat at one time,” Alston said. “But it’s going to have to be done.”

The Democratic commissioner said the Republican commissioners have been adamant about not raising taxes, but he said they need to realize that, if the citizens vote to pass a large school bond referendum, they’re agreeing to give themselves a property tax increase.

“It’s the same thing as in May 2008,” Alston said. “When the voters approved over $600 million in new bond money, they were voting for a tax increase and they knew that.”

According to Alston, what voters didn’t know in May 2008 was that there would be a financial crash just six months later.  Alston said he and former Republican Commissioner Steve Arnold got together and cut county government cost so the board didn’t have to raise property taxes in the wake of the financial crisis.

“We cut $40 million out of the budget to pay for that,” Alston said.

Guilford County Board of Education Member Byron Gladden said there’s no question the school system needs a major new infusion of capital funds right now.  He said he believes the citizens of Guilford County will vote to approve a major school bond because they’re aware of the school system’s needs.  He said that, this time around, it’s not a matter of having adequate facilities – it’s a matter of life and death.

He said the schools appreciate the fact that the commissioners voted in 2018 to raise $10 million for school security, but he added that that’s only a small portion of what’s needed to make schools secure as well as meet other needs.   Gladden also said the new school facilities study will help put a number on exactly what the amount should be on a coming school bond referendum.  He said he knows that number will be large.

“These schools that were built 50 years ago were not built for today,” Gladden said. “Grimsley, for instance, has 70 points of entry.”

According to Gladden, citizens have come to the school board asking for their taxes to be increased to help with capital improvements for schools to fund repairs and security upgrades.

“If we are not going to raise taxes or give the school board the ability to tax, then we need to do something,” he said.