Interview: NHC Commission Chair Woody White on School Bond -- Part Two

Sep 12, 2014

One new public elementary school is going up near Porters Neck in northern New Hanover County. 

Two schools are so outdated that they need to be razed and rebuilt.  And all of the County’s schools are slated for security upgrades.   But not all county officials think a general obligation bond is the way to fund these projects. 

Here is County Commission Chair Woody White in Part Two of our series on the $160 million New Hanover County school bond referendum. 

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RLH:  You really have $390 million in needs… so the idea behind this bond issue was cut to $280 million and then it was cut to the current $160 million.  That seems like a huge mountain to climb, financially, without the assistance of a bond issue. 

WW:  Well, I’ve never suggested that these are easy decisions or that we aren’t confronted with challenges.  We are.  We have seen, in the midst of these needs that we are told we have – and many of which we agree we do have – that our test scores continue to go up every year.  Every year.  Our funding from a state system continues to go up every year.  So, you know, in a vacuum, conceptually, in theory, kids can learn in a shoebox if they have a good teacher, if they have good support, and good structure. 

And I’m not suggesting that.  I think our kids need to have the best buildings we can afford.  But over the last couple of decades, we’ve not made the tough choices as elected officials.  We’ve simply gone to the debt market and said, “Hey, will you loan us money?  Will you loan us money?”  And we just can’t keep doing that.  We simply can’t keep doing that.

RLH:  College Park and Blair Elementary, for instance… They have such outdated designs – at least one of them – every classroom opens onto the outside.  How do those two figure into it for you?  College Park and Blair Elementary seem particularly dire.

WW:  It’s untenable.  It needs to be replaced.  But we can do that over time thinking through it, and being innovative, and finding the money.  And by the way, the overcrowding that we’re going to [deal with] with the Porters Neck northern School is going to help some of that… But the mobile units - -we have 86 of them now, I think – we had mobile units for decades around here.  Why?  We’ve had to do it.  And our kids have done fine.

RLH:  What about the general system-wide problem of overcrowding?

WW:   What does that really mean?  That’s kind of a moving-the-goal-post.  I remember going to Hoggard 7 or 8 years ago to give a speech and they had 23-2400 kids there.  Well, they’ve got 1800, I think, this year, which is still over capacity, but they’d had hundreds more while they were waiting for Ashley to be finished.  Again, we don’t want to crowd kids into these schools, but we have to step back and keep it in perspective here. 

What really impacts and lets kids learn?  It’s good teachers.  It’s solid parent support.  It’s solid club and auxiliary support. 

RLH:  County Manager Chris Coudriet says you’re looking at an upfront tax impact of about four cents – three cents over the life of the bond.  But that’s just this bond.  The next fiscal year, we’re going to have to raise the tax rate by five cents to deal with past debt – nothing to do with this school bond.  Is that true? 

WW:  That’s his view.   I’ve said on and on since the beginning and in talks with everyone that has ever asked me this - -I’m not going to support a property tax raise.

RLH:  You will not?  Next fiscal year? 

WW:  I don’t intend to.  No, because again, we shoulder so much burden on our property taxpayers. 

The average person in New Hanover County 20 years ago owed $196 in debt for county government.  Today it’s over $1500 a citizen.  Think about that.  Less than $200 and today it’s over $1500.  That’s unsustainable.  And so, yes, while we’re in good financial health, everything is good, our bond ratings are great, our interest rates are great, we can’t continue that trajectory over the next 20 years, in my opinion. 

RLH:  Woody White, thanks so much for joining us today.

WW:  Rachel, thanks for having me. 

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See also (links below):  Interview, Part I -- a discussion of other funding methods;

September 10th edition of CoastLine -- in which County staff members present an alternate view of the bond referendum