Big, costly high schools may be history for CMS

September 7, 2013 

The Charlotte Observer

The era of building big high schools in Mecklenburg County may be ending as construction money tightens and big tracts of affordable land disappear, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials said Friday.

CMS and Central Piedmont Community College are gearing up for their first bond vote in six years.

The landscape has changed since voters last approved bonds in 2007.

Before the recession, CMS and the county officials who control the money took an aggressive approach to building new schools and fixing up older ones. Voters said yes to $516 million in 2007, and CMS officials expected to put another $500 million or so on the ballot in 2009.

“That’s not the way the world works anymore,” CMS planner Dennis LaCaria said Friday.

On Nov. 5, voters will be asked to approve $290 million for CMS and $210 million for CPCC, amounts that are expected to last four years and avoid the need to raise property taxes.

The CMS plan includes expansions to Olympic and East Mecklenburg high schools and renovations that will help Myers Park and South Mecklenburg handle growing enrollment.

Normally, growth leads officials to start planning for new schools. But Assistant Superintendent Guy Chamberlain says a full-size high school requires about 50 acres, the kind of space that’s getting scarcer and more expensive as suburban Mecklenburg County develops.

The 2007 bonds paid for two full-size high schools that opened in 2010, Hough in Cornelius and Rocky River in Mint Hill. Hough cost $56 million and Rocky River cost $53 million.

Another school that size would require about $60 million — a daunting sum if the district only has about $300 million to spread over four years, Chamberlain said.

Instead, Chamberlain said, CMS may look at letting existing campuses expand to about 2,500, rather than viewing 2,000 as the right size for a high school.

CMS is also creating smaller high school options, such as a new health-sciences magnet at the uptown Hawthorne High and clones of Cato Middle College High. The CPCC bond package includes plans to add CMS high schools at the Levine campus in Matthews and the Harper campus in southwest Charlotte.

Business leaders and education advocates have launched a campaign to promote passage of CMS and CPCC bonds. CMS will kick off its own information campaign — the district can’t use public money to seek votes — with an upgraded bond web page next week. Heath Morrison is also holding a new round of “ coffee with the superintendent” sessions at schools around the county, where he’ll talk about construction plans and educational goals. The first will be at 9 a.m. Wednesday at Olympic High, 4301 Sandy Porter Rd.

The big unknown is how the recession-driven changes will shape voter feelings about bonds. After years of expansion, CMS approved a controversial batch of school closings in 2010. The county’s quest to rein in debt also led to creation of a new county priority system for construction, which has sometimes clashed with CMS plans for which projects should come first.

“We’re not keeping pace and it’s not our fault,” CMS board Chairman Mary McCray said.

Voter turnout tends to be low in off-year elections. The first task may be making sure communities know they’ve got something at stake with the bonds.

Paul Bailey, a school board candidate and mayor pro tem of Matthews, said he came to Friday’s bond briefing to get up to speed on the plans. “I think people don’t know it’s there yet,” he said.

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