As record $2.5 billion CMS bond vote nears, pro and con campaigns gear up

A month before Mecklenburg County voters will approve or reject a record-breaking $2.5 billion in school bonds, the campaigns for and against the bonds are heating up.

In past Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools bond campaigns, opposition has tended to come from conservatives and the suburbs. In 2017, for instance, the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce took a stand against a $922 million bond package, saying it didn’t do enough for crowded northern schools.

Chamber President Bill Russell says this week the chamber voted enthusiastically to endorse a much bigger request because “we’re getting a fair share of that bond.”

The bond vote essentially asks voters to approve a $2.5 billion line of credit, which CMS leaders say will be used to pay for 30 projects that will break ground over approximately seven years. That includes three new middle schools, a new specialty high school and a lot of renovation and replacement projects for existing schools.

Russell noted that the north part of the county will get a new middle school and see old buildings replaced at North Mecklenburg High, Huntersville Elementary and Cornelius Elementary.

Bond backers emphasize the need for buildings that create the best possible learning conditions, including up-to-date safety features and reduced reliance on mobile classrooms.

“We are building for excellence. Our focus is on bringing modern and safe schools across Mecklenburg County,” Superintendent Crystal Hill told the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus on Monday.

A big price tag

Guilford County voters, who approved a $1.7 billion referendum last year, hold the record for the largest school bond in North Carolina. The CMS board and a majority of county commissioners agreed CMS needs $2.5 billion, even though county officials say that will require property tax hikes as the debt is repaid, starting in 2025 and inching up through 2029.

But three Democratic county commissioners voted no — including Arthur Griffin, a former school board chair who led the “vote yes” campaign for school bonds in 2017. They said it’s just too big a request, especially at a time when this year’s revaluation has already boosted tax bills for many residents. The revaluation fell especially hard on property owners in the close-in, traditionally lower-income Charlotte neighborhoods known as “the crescent,” which have seen land and home prices shoot up in recent years.

This week a group of Black clergy announced that they’re starting a “vote no” campaign. One of the leaders is Ricky Woods, senior minister at First Baptist Church West. He says Charlotte’s Black community normally supports school bonds, but “the largest issue for us is when we, particularly clergy, started hearing from residents in our community who were coming to our office with their property tax bills in their hands saying, ‘I can’t pay this. What am I supposed to do?’ ”

Woods says he started by lobbying commissioners to approve a leaner budget for the current year, which is not affected by the CMS bond. When that failed, he said, clergy from predominantly Black Church of God, Baptist, AME Zion and Presbyterian congregations banded together to oppose the bond. He said details of the campaign, including a budget, are still being worked out.

Bond projects are designed to reduce Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' reliance on mobile classrooms.

Ann Doss Helms



Bond projects are designed to reduce Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ reliance on mobile classrooms.

Woods’ group contends that approval of the bond will bring five consecutive years of property tax hikes. Bond supporters say the county projection calls for only three increases over the course of five years. By 2029, they say, the full bond-related property tax increase will come to about $120 a year for the owner of a $400,000 home.

The exact tax impact will depend on a number of factors, such as interest rates, construction costs and other county budget decisions.

Woods says even if the pro-bond numbers are correct, it’s still too much for people who are already struggling to hold onto their homes.

“Those taxes are continuing to climb, climb, climb, climb, climb,” he said. “And my whole point is that we shouldn’t be expecting low-wealth property owners to pay the brunt of this. Which is exactly what’s happening.”

Woods says bond defeat wouldn’t necessarily halt progress toward improving CMS facilities. He said the county could simply use other means to raise the money, such as using the pay-as-you-go fund that’s being used to cover some other county projects. The county can also borrow money without issuing bonds, but bonds generally carry a lower interest rate.

Promises being honored

Mary McCray, another former school board chair, is a co-chair of this year’s “vote yes” campaign. On Monday — the same day the “vote no” group announced its plans and the Lake Norman Chamber voted to support the bond — McCray made her pitch to Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Black Political Caucus. She said 21 of the 30 projects fall within the general “crescent” area. That includes a long-promised replacement for the historically Black Second Ward High School.

“Every one of these projects are long overdue,” McCray said. “And so if you’re asking yourself, ‘Why should I support this?’ Because these are promises that were made and promises that this board is trying to keep. And with this bond they can do that.”

The pitch to the Black Political Caucus also included information about the district’s efforts to ensure that minorities, women and small businesses get construction-related contracts. For the 2017 bond projects, Superintendent Hill told the group, the goal was 21% but almost 46% of contracts went to people in those categories.

“In terms of the next bond cycle, of course we are fully committed to an equitable process in ensuring that we’re increasing those participation rates,” she said.

Conditions for support?

Some caucus members asked follow-up questions, noting that only 9% of contracts went to African American businesses. And two days after the forum, the caucus issued a statement calling on CMS to commit to 30% minority participation for 2023 bond projects, create a more transparent bidding process and involve the Black Political Caucus earlier in the process.

Caucus President Caleb Theodros says this is part of ongoing talks his group is having with CMS officials. He says the biggest bond request in Mecklenburg County history also stands to have an outsized impact on community and economic development.

“It’s going to be a drastic change to the way Charlotte looks for the next 20, 30, 40 years,” he said. “So we want to just ensure that the community that has built the city up until now, that has built CMS up until now, is also involved in the economic process.”

The Black Political Caucus statement says that “our stance garners unwavering support” from various groups and business leaders — including the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance, which is paying for the “vote yes” campaign.

Alliance President Janet LeBar sent the following statement: “The Charlotte Regional Business Alliance appreciates CMS’ dedication to prioritizing diversity in its contracting and supports the Black Political Caucus’ efforts to champion greater opportunities for minority-owned businesses, including in contracting, for critical and growth projects like our schools. We encourage CMS to work with community stakeholders, including the BPC, to develop aspirational goals that involve all communities more extensively in this economic development activity.”

CMS also sent a statement in response to the caucus’ requests. It included a recap of its program and a general statement of support for minority participation, but no specific promists. It’s not yet clear whether that will be enough to lock in the caucus’ support. Theodros said that will be decided at Sunday’s endorsement meeting.

“That one will be a straight-up yes or no on the bond,” he said.

County voters will also offer a straight-up yes or no on Nov. 7. The ballot asks only for approval to borrow $2.5 billion, with nothing spelled out about the projects or any conditions for moving forward.

The bond referendum coincides with a CMS board election. Fourteen candidates are trying for the three at-large seats on the board. And they, too, are divided on the bond. Seven candidates have told WFAE they support the bond and three say they oppose it. The rest either haven’t answered or have given unclear responses.

What’s in the plan

These are the projects CMS plans to do if the $2.5 billion bond package is approved. They would be phased in over seven years. Costs include estimated inflation.


  • Second Ward Medical and Technology High School: Full magnet located on the uptown site of the old Metro School, with a magnet program currently located at Hawthorne High relocated there. $176.8 million.
  • North middle school: Built on land CMS owns on Stumptown Road at Monteith Park in Huntersville. $92.3 million.
  • South middle school: Built on land CMS recently bought off Tom Short Road. It’s scheduled to open in 2025 and was part of this year’s controversial boundary decisions, along with plans for a southern high school opening next year. $101.1 million.
  • Southwest middle school: Built on land the district has on Highway 160. $98.4  million.


  • Albemarle Road Middle: Replacement with 54-classroom school. $97.7 million.
  • Cotswold/Chantilly/Billingsville elementary schools: Cotswold building replaced, with students moving into Billingsville during construction. When it’s done, Billingsville becomes a Montessori school and Chantilly Montessori is demolished. $80.5 million.
  • East Mecklenburg High: Renovation completed, including replacement of old buildings and a comprehensive athletics facility. $201.3 million.
  • Marie G. Davis: Renovated to house the secondary Montessori school now located at J.T. Williams. $9.2 million.
  • Park Road/Sedgefield/Dilworth elementary schools: Sedgefield is renovated to house the Montessori program currently at Park Road. Park Road is replaced with a 45-classroom school that will house the students currently at Dilworth. Dilworth is repurposed as a middle school magnet.
  • Garinger High: Next phase of renovation, including cafeteria, gym, athletics facility and specialty classrooms. $54.9 million.
  • Cornelius Elementary: Replacement with 45-classroom school. $76.5 million.
  • Huntersville Elementary: Replacement with 45-classroom school. $66.2 million.
  • North Mecklenburg High: Completion of renovation, including replacement of the old buildings that remain and a comprehensive athletics facility. $228.5 million.
  • Allenbrook Elementary: Building demolished and replaced at the site of the Freedom Driving Range. $74.2 million.
  • Wilson STEM: Replacement with 54-classroom school. $92.5 million.
  • Berryhill School: Building demolished and replaced on land owned by Parks and Recreation. $104.3 million.
  • Coulwood STEM: Replacement with 54-classroom school. $92.7 million.
  • Matthews Elementary: Replacement with 45-classroom school. $79.9 million.
  • Beverly Woods Elementary: Replacement with 45-classroom school. $71.2 million.
  • South Mecklenburg High: Renovations completed, including replacement of remaining old buildings and a comprehensive athletics facility. $127.9 million.
  • Steele Creek Elementary: Replacement with 45-classroom school. $80.8 million.
  • Northwest School of the Arts/First Ward: Northwest renovations completed and First Ward renovated, allowing middle-school grades to shift from Northwest to First Ward. $93.6 million.
  • University Park Arts: Replacement with a 39-classroom arts school. $73.1 million.


These projects will be the last started and will require additional money for construction.

  • Cochrane Collegiate: Replacement with a 54-classroom middle school. High school iMeck magnet program moves to Garinger High. $7.5 million.
  • J.T. Williams: Renovated to house an alternative education program.
  • Villa Heights Elementary: Current building demolished with 45-classroom replacement built at the Hawthorne site. $6.2 million.
  • West regional athletic complex: Facility that can host tournaments and events for schools across the region; includes a gym, pool, stadium and fields. $9 million.
  • E.E. Waddell High: Expansion to support programs. $1.6 million.
  • South Charlotte Middle: Replacement with 54-classroom school. $7.7 million.

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