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Wednesday, 02 January 2008 00:00

State says foul on school bond referendum support

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By Jennifer Garlesky • Staff Writer

After investigating the actions of the Macon County School Board for the past two months, officials at the North Carolina State Board of Elections have determined that the school district violated two campaign finance statutes.

 

The state board of elections released its findings on Dec. 17 regarding a complaint they received from Colin Gooder, a Macon County resident.

The state has been investigating whether the school district properly disclosed money raised and spent to support the county’s school bond referendum, a $42.1 million bond that would have built two new schools. That bond was soundly defeated by Macon voters during the Nov. 6, 2007, election

The state received seven complaints against the school board’s actions. From those seven allegations, the state found that the school district violated two laws by failing to establish a referendum committee in a timely manner and not disclosing campaign finance reports in a timely manner, said Amy Strange, a campaign finance specialist with the state Board of Elections.

Just before the Nov. 6 general election, the school district’s actions became a target of scrutiny. In August school board members approved $5,000 so school officials could print and distribute flyers and purchase billboards and yard signs informing taxpayers about the proposed bond. Allocating money for informational material is OK, according to state guidelines. However, putting the phrase “vote yes for children” on the materials violated state guidelines because the school district was using tax money to advocate for a particular political position.

Residents were bombarded with signs that touted the phrase “vote yes,” which were put along roadways, in yards, and a sign was even placed in front of the school district’s administrative building.

Swaying residents to vote a certain way may have upset some, and might have been a contributing factor to the bond being rejected by residents.

School officials were notified about their violation of state laws and formed a political action group called “Citizens for Better Schools for Macon County” on Oct. 9. Once formed, the group started promoting the referendum.

Once the committee was formed, it did not file financial reports on time. However, since this was the committee’s first violation, that state waived the penalty, Strange said.

 

The bond goes down

Since the bond’s defeat, county and school leaders have been scrambling to find alternative ways to fund the school system’s needs.

The passage of the bond would have allowed the county to fund the school projects through a low interest loan. The county was also banking on the passage of a 0.4 percent tax levy on all real estate transactions. The tax would have generated an estimated $2.5 million a year, which would have been applied to the school projects loan.

The school bond was one of five referendum questions that voters got to pick and choose from on the Nov. 6 ballot. Even though the school bond garnered the most support of all the county’s proposed referendums — which included plans for a new senior center, a multi-million dollar recreation complex, a Southwestern Community College building and a new library in Highlands — they all were rejected.

Since the state has released its investigation results, school officials say they are now able to focus on building the new schools.

“We are very thankful for the Citizen for Better School’s tremendous support of our school bond referendum and for providing much needed support for educating the public,” Macon County Schools Superintendent Dan Brigman said.

“Even though the bond did not pass, our needs still exist and we look forward to working with county commissioners to improve the schools of Macon County.”

Macon County commissioners have gone on the record saying they understand and support the school district’s need for additional school facilities.

The county has already secured 29 acres of land along Clarks Chapel Road that will be the future site for the proposed fifth and sixth grade school, which is projected to cost $16.2 million.

Earlier this month commissioners approved a loan agreement for this tract of land. The land costs $2.6 million, but the county will end up paying a little more than $3.3 million for the property when interest costs are added.

The county’s second school project is building the proposed K-4 school in north Macon. This project will cost $14.9 million. The time line for both of these projects is now uncertain.

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