There are very few things in life that haven’t been affected by the now ubiquitous coronavirus – and one more thing that can be put on that long list is the new school bond referendum that’s been planned for the November ballot.
The bond was a major topic of discussion at a small meeting this week between Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips, Commissioner Skip Alston and county staff. Most of that discussion surrounding the proposed 2020 school bond referendum took place in closed session, but it’s becoming clear that the virus – and its total economic disruption – has greatly complicated the matter for the commissioners.
In early March, the Guilford County Board of Education voted to request that the county set the amount of a bond referendum at $1.6 billion and approve its placement on the November ballot. However, when the school board made that request, it wasn’t known that the economy of the United States of America would be virtually shut down for an unknown period of time. Things may be much better by the fall, however, the problem is that, if the commissioners are going to approve a school bond for the November ballot, they have to start that process in April in order to meet requirements that involve public hearings and state government approval just to name two considerations.
This week, Guilford County Commissioner Hank Henning said the Board of Commissioners is in an extremely challenging position because it’s being asked to determine what kind of financial burden the county can take on at a time when the county faces massive economic uncertainty.
Guilford County Commissioner Alan Branson said another factor to consider is that, if the economy is in a shambles in October and November when people vote, the county citizens are very unlikely to approve a giant billion-dollar-plus school bond.
“I think that sets it up for failure,” Branson said of the requested amount that’s daunting even when the economy is doing well.
Branson suggested a school bond referendum of $350 million to $500 million would have a better chance of passing.
Several county commissioners pointed out this week that the county could always have another referendum in 2022 and they also noted that the schools can’t spent $1.6 billion all at once – especially at a time when construction crews are booked solid for other projects.
Commissioner Skip Alston said that he believes a school bond referendum of $1.6 billion actually has a better chance of passing than a much smaller one.
Alston said, “If you have a $1.6 billion bond more people will see projects for their schools.”
In the past, when school officials have sought voter support for bonds, they have created a list of projects the school system plans to undertake if the referendum passes, though they haven’t always stuck tightly to that list after the election.
Alston said it’s true that Guilford County officials don’t know how hard the virus will hit county finances economically, but he added that there is something that is known.
“We know that there are 72,000 kids in the schools who need these issues addressed,” Alston said, “and we know that the problems with the schools are not going to go away because of the virus. “