It isn’t always easy to keep up with demand for schools in the 9th fastest growing county in the U.S.
Sometimes it takes some out-of-the-box thinking to make it work. So says the Raleigh Regional Association of REALTORS® (RRAR), the Wake County North Carolina School Board and some business groups that successfully supported a proposal that would allow developers to build schools for the county.
Raleigh along with Chapel Hill and Durham is known as the Research Triangle area thanks to the work done at the University of North Carolina, Duke University and North Carolina State University. The appeal of living in the area has had its impact on Wake County and there has been an increasing demand for new schools, said Tara Lightner, government affairs director of the RRAR. According to Wake County figures, since 2003, the County has enrolled on average 5,000 additional students each year.
RRAR used a $3,000 National Association of REALTORS® grant to help fund a “lunch and learn” session that focused on the use of public-private partnerships. Ronald D. Utt, known for the restructuring and devolutions of government programs and an analyst for the Heritage Foundation, was the featured speaker.
“He did a great job of examining the practical applications of public-private partnerships,” said Lightner.
Before the bill became law, local governments had to provide for school facilities either through direct appropriations for construction, by borrowing money in the form of bonds or leasing existing buildings.
Now the law allows the local school boards to identify where schools are needed, provide design and construction specifications to the builders and then lease the facility upon completion.
The RRAR and the Wake County School Board worked with state school boards in order to garner the support needed to pass the legislation.
“The REALTORS® were able to be seen as a ‘solution’ to a community problem rather than a group often opposed to all the ‘usual remedies,’” Lightner said. “We now have the legal authority to enter into private-construction projects with various state and local entities.”
Having legal authority is one thing, but getting developers and contractors to build the schools has proved a little more difficult.
Leann Winner, director of governmental affairs and chief lobbyist for the North Carolina School Boards Association, said after the law passed in 2006 public-private partnerships were tried in Charlotte and Wake Counties, but obstacles prevented the school boards from moving.
Winner said while the law increased flexibility, the ensuing downturn in the economy has prevented developers from getting more favorable interest rates than the counties. Additionally, while the Legislature gave the idea the green light, it didn’t delete requirements that school projects be publicly bid by more than one developer or that the bids be open to public review.
The RRAR partnered with the Triangle Community Coalition in sponsoring the “lunch and learn” and Utt’s appearance. Despite the delays, the coalition still supports the idea of public-private partnerships for schools and thinks the law could be revisited to make it more attractive for developers to move forward.
Coalition spokesperson Chris Sinclair said before the law change, developers were prevented from trying to build the schools. Sinclair and RRAR’s Lightner say the schools could be built quicker by private developers who don’t have to jump through all the hoops the county does.
If time is money, they maintain, then public-private partnerships are a winner for everyone.