Meet the man who helped construct Mecklenburg County’s $2.5 billion school bond proposal

Few people know more about the maintenance needs of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools than does Dennis La Caria, executive director of facilities and real estate planning for the county school district.

When county officials began planning for a $2.5 billion bond referendum to benefit CMS, which goes before voters on Nov. 7, they turned to La Caria for advice.

La Caria recently met with QCity Metro to talk about how the bond proposal came together, as well as its potential impact on property taxes.

If approved, the bonds would be used to replace or renovate 30 schools, nearly all with capacity issues, out-of-date building structures, toxic mold, leaky pipes, bad ceilings and odor issues, he said.

 Why it matters: Not everyone is thrilled with the idea of such a large bond package — the biggest in North Carolina history — and a group of Black clergy has encouraged voters to reject it. They worry that in an economic climate of high inflation and rising interest rates, a $2.5 billion bond package would further drive up property taxes, especially damaging seniors and low-income families in historically Black neighborhoods.

Dennis Williams, pastor of Faith Memorial Baptist Church, said the clergy group, consisting of 20 faith leaders, believes the bond proposal should be put on the ballot at a later date.

Williams, a former CMS regional superintendent, said the district should be directing more money toward hiring new teachers or increasing school resources, not toward building new schools.

“It’s not going to do one thing to address our greatest need, and that’s the academic achievement of our students,” he said.

 La Caria has worked with the district since 2006 and has been involved in a number of bond packages. Planning for this year’s bond proposal was started in 2020 to include a number of projects that had to be excluded from the previous bond in 2017. 

The current bond initiative will help tackle a long list of problems across the district, La Caria said.

His answers below have been edited for brevity and clarity.

You’ve been involved with a number of bonds. How is the 2023 bond referendum different from previous bonds?

We‘ve always looked at things from an equity lens and ensured that all schools have an adequate learning environment. 

This time, we have made it a big focus to address that area, looking at issues within and outside school buildings that impede students from learning. 

We have to make it better. We are more intentional about what needs can be fixed separately or what has been included in the bond package. 

How will new school buildings and renovations impact student and teachers’ achievement?

West Charlotte is a prime example.  After they went up a full letter grade after changing schools, you can see the outcome when you have students in a facility that is stimulating. Studies have shown that students perform better when they are in a new school environment.

Better school buildings are also a recruitment and retention tool for our staff as well. Our teachers should feel comfortable and proud to come to work.

Why was a bond referendum decided on this capital plan?

That decision is made by county commissioners. We don’t decide how funding comes, we just want to get it. There are other options that the county could have decided on.

What are these other options, outside of using a bond referendum?

You can use pay-go, which means you use current revenue and pay for each project separately as you go.

Another option is the certificate of participation works as a bond, but it is directly approved by county officials and doesn’t go through the voter. Because voters don’t approve the bond, interest rates are typically higher.  

A bond revenue is an avenue for the lowest interest possible. They tell us what their capacity is for funding, and we take what we can get.

They have to figure out ways to pay for other needs in the county, so they have to figure out how to pay each one of those entities.

How will the bond impact property taxes?

It’s really tied to your property value. The tax increase is one cent per $100 valuation.

What are the misconceptions about the bond?

People have said that we are trying to push the bond while not caring about the taxes. First, the school board doesn’t have the ability to raise taxes.  We have examined every option to ensure it is in the best interest of our students and the community.

Some people believe we are replacing schools because areas are gentrifying. That is not true. Many schools in the Black community have long been on our priority lists but didn’t make the final cut in the last bond due to funding capacity and schools with much higher needs.  

Now that potential funding is available, we want to make sure that these schools are taken care of. So our efforts and intentions happened before any type of gentrification occurred. 

You have a number of other misconceptions that we want to clear when we do our informational sessions about the bond.

You’ve traveled to different schools and community events to inform people about the bond. How has the feedback been? 

Community feedback has been good. I can’t advocate for the bond, but share information and clear any misconceptions.

 The most gratifying thing is that when I get to explain to people how the bond works, they understand it. There have been people who were skeptical and/or didn’t understand it, who are now for the bonds.

Getting people to understand the what and why, it’s important

If the bond does not pass, what will the district do in regard to these school replacements and renovations?

When the last bond was denied, the county issued the certification of participation for us to begin working on some of our priority projects.

We would have to pivot for two years to strategize what went wrong in our initial bond request and try to regain the community’s trust to prepare for the next bond opportunity, which would be in 2029.

If the bond doesn’t pass after the election, it could cause problems for the district. 

This would have a negative impact on students today and also delay projects scheduled for the future.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the tax increase caused by the proposed bond.

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