PENDER COUNTY — Pender County has decided to take on $178 million in debt to pay for schools while sticking with the party that historically favored low taxes.
The school bond referendum engineered by the Pender County school board and the county commissioners sailed through with 54.11% of voters favoring the referendum..
The debt will help the school district pay for a new elementary and middle school, totaling about $111.5 million, plus $22 million in renovations at Topsail Middle School, construction of a new central office for $21 million, a new maintenance building for $17 million,a $1.2-million addition at Rocky Point Elementary School and $4.2 million to rebuild the Burgaw Middle School cafeteria.
Board of Education Chair Brad George issued a statement late Tuesday night after it was clear the referendum had passed:
“It’s an exciting day for Pender County Schools,” George wrote. “With the passing of this bond we can continue to move the district ahead to new levels of achievement. Work starts now.”
The school board conceived of the bond to offset its increasing facility needs. The district’s enrollment barely dropped at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and has increased by more than 500 students each year since.
The district is already struggling with overcrowding in lower grades to the point it moved the fifth grade classes in Topsail Elementary School to Topsail Middle School because of space.
Overcrowding has been an issue for years, and by 2019 the county was already aware it would be taking in thousands of more students.
The site for the new elementary and middle school has not been selected by the board yet, but the district plans to have construction underway by June 2023. It also anticipates a two-year build on both schools and has set a goal to complete all the projects by the fall of 2027.
Brad Breedlove, who will start as the district’s new superintendent Jan. 1, commended the district for promoting the purpose of the bond to the community.
“This bond is a very important step to assist our school system to meet the needs of all students. Thank you to all those who worked and voted to make this happen,” Breedlove wrote in a statement.
The referendum passed despite an anticipated county property tax rate to pay back the debt. Locals can expect an increase of 9 cents on the low end and 26 cents at most. The district took on an extended information campaign starting in May, when it requested the commissioners, when it first proposed the bond be placed on the ballot.
The school board itself will see a small change in membership come December. District 1 member Cindy Fontana did not run for reelection and will be replaced by Brent Springer, a fellow Republican.
Springer, along with every Republican on the ticket, easily defeated his Democratic challenger in the reliably red county. Springer took 69.02% of the vote to challenger Sheree Shepard’s 30.98%
Springer did not respond to a request for comment.
Two incumbents on the board won reelection as well. District 2 member Beth Burns ran unopposed, and District 4 member Ken Smith won 69.89% of the vote against opponent Demetrice Keith.
He told Port City Daily school overcrowding remains his top issue going into the next term and credited voters for passing the bond referendum.
Smith also praised former superintendent Stephen Hill, who retired in October, for holding community meetings and giving locals a positive image of what the bond would do, despite the tax increase.
The referendum, he said, was personal for most voters. Pender County Schools is the largest employer with 1,400 people clock in to work at its 18 schools every day.
“Even if someone doesn’t have a child in the school system, chances are they have a loved one that is employed by the school system or attend church with someone who works there,” he said.
Other new officials won seats in Pender County government this election year. The board of commissioners had even less competition. Both Wendy Fletcher-Hardee and Jerry Groves went unchallenged.
Groves defeated longtime District 3 commissioner George Brown in the primary, effectively securing his seat in the fall. At the time, Groves told PCD his top issue was good stewardship of tax dollars.
Fletcher-Hardee said in her candidate profile with PCD that managing growth — specifically by working more closely with the county planning department — was her biggest concern.
Jimmy Tate returned to his District 1 seat in August. The former commissioner was appointed to the board after David Williams resigned in July to care for his mother.
Tate ran unopposed and was elected to a full four-year term.
In other uncontested races, Republican Alan Cutler was reelected sheriff, with Ben David remaining district attorney, Elizabeth Crave as Pender County Clerk of Superior Court, and Bill Burrell as Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisor.
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