Voters to Decide Fate of Bond Referendum

On November 7, voters will decide whether or not to support a $3.1 billion bond package for North Carolina’s universities and community colleges.

The bond referendum, which totals $2.5 billion for the state’s 16 public universities and $600 million for its 59 community colleges, includes $108.9 million set aside for projects on the campuses of WCU and Southwestern Community College.

Where is the Money Coming From?If the bonds are approved, taxes will not increase as a result, according to NC Treasurer Harlan Boyles. Unless there is a statewide catastrophe, the bonds will not affect taxes because of North Carolina’s low debt burden.

The bonds will not cause tuition and fees at universities to go up either. Certain student fees that have traditionally been used for the upkeep of university facilities will continue to be used for that purpose.

Universities will repay the state for their amount of the bond funds over the next 25 years, allowing the buildings to be used as they are paid for rather than waiting for money to be raised before a new building is constructed.

The Specific Needs of WCUThe North Carolina General Assembly sent a consulting firm to each of the campuses in the UNC system to conduct a study of the physical needs of existing facilities. Since enrollment in the UNC system is projected to grow by 50,000 students in the next 10 years, the consultants also examined the needs of each campus should their enrollments increase.

The bond referendum includes a detailed list of all the projects that will be completed and how much they are estimated to cost. If the bonds are passed, universities and community colleges will receive the money in increments over the next six years, and a special Higher Education Bond Oversight Committee will monitor the projects closely, receiving reports on the status of the projects from the institutions on a frequent basis.

WCU’s enrollment is slated to grow from 6300 students in the present semester to 9400 students in the year 2010. When the consulting firm studied WCU more than a year ago, they recommended that the university complete several projects in order for it to be able to support the nearly 50% growth rate.

According to Dr. C.J. Carter, vice-chancellor for business affairs, the work of the consultants sent by the state coincided somewhat with WCU’s work on its Master Plan, a plan for changes to the university in the next ten years.

“Western had the unique good fortune to have our campus Master Plan project in full swing at the same time that the Board of Governors consultant was doing her work,” said Carter.

A total of $98.4 million is slated under the bonds to go toward projects at WCU. The largest single item on the list of projects to be completed is the Fine and Performing Arts Center. Planned for the land adjacent to Belk building, the center has at this point only been designed and the land graded for its eventual construction. Last year, the university received $5 million with which to raise the land, which had previously been used for intramural fields, above flood plain so that the center could be constructed.

Further construction on the center in the near future depends on the passing of the bonds, which would give $26 million for its completion. Should the bonds not pass, WCU would be required to wait for the NC General Assembly to appropriate funds for the center’s completion, according to Carter.

The list of projects also includes the modernization of Stillwell, McKee, Forsyth, Killian, and the Killian Annex, for a total of nearly $32.1 million. These renovations would update Stillwell’s science laboratory facilities and improve electrical and technological connections in each of the buildings.

The renovation of Bird building is also on the bond agenda. Bird was WCU’s administration building before the construction of the H.F. Robinson Administration building in the 1970’s, and contains small office spaces. It will be converted to an expanded Health Services Center at a cost of $1.8 million.

The current Health Services Center is located in Graham Infirmary, which was built in 1939, when WCU had an enrollment of around 500 students. Recently, restrooms inside the building were converted to examination rooms due to an overall lack of space. Under the bond referendum, Graham Infirmary will be converted into residential and academic space for special programs, at a cost of $1.9 million.

Breese Gymnasium will be converted into academic space, if the bonds are passed, with $1.2 million. If WCU’s growth is close to what it has been projected to be, more residential space will be needed, and $15.2 million will be provided under the bonds for the construction of a 300-bed residence hall.

Should the bonds pass, WCU will also be provided with more than $3 million to acquire more land, as it becomes available.

According to Carter, this land will be used by the university for several purposes, including constructing parking lots on the edges of campus, creating new recreational fields, relocating major roads that currently run through the center of campus, and building new residence halls.

Carter explained that there are many projects being considered by WCU to respond to the projected growth that may not come to fruition for several years without financial assistance from the bonds.

“If the bond issue doesn’t pass, there are so many issues that we will have to basically rethink,” said Carter. “All of our plans to deal with expected enrollment growth depend on the bonds being passed.”

Campus InvolvementOther departments and organizations within the university have been making an effort to deliver information about the bonds to voters, both on campus and in surrounding communities. As an institution, WCU is responsible for informing voters in Jackson, Macon, Swain, Transylvania, Henderson, Cherokee, Clay, and Graham counties about the bond package.

To get the word out, the Division of Student Affairs chose certain WCU students who hail from those counties to make presentations about the bonds at local community colleges. Civic leaders, members of the community, and local media have attended these presentations, which have already been given at Southwestern Community College and Tri-County Community College.

Student Affairs is also sponsoring “Get on the Bus,” a project in which student volunteers will fill a charter bus and briefly visit the communities surrounding WCU, handing out literature and answering questions about the bonds.

On October 25, the bus will head to Waynesville, Sylva, Dillsboro and Franklin. The next day, October 26, the bus will depart for Bryson City, Andrews, Murphy and Robbinsville. Dr. Robert Caruso, vice-chancellor for student affairs, hopes to see a large student turnout for these trips.

The College Democrats and College Republicans have been holding voter registration drives on campus and encouraging students to vote in support of the bonds on Election Day.

Dr. William Haggard, associate vice-chancellor for student affairs, stated that the student affairs division has been working in conjunction with the Student Government Association and other organizations to get information to the public about the bonds.

“The passing of the bond bill is critical to the success of this university,” said Haggard. “We anticipate growth. We have certain facilities that are presently inadequate. For us to grow as an institution, both in numbers and in quality, this bond is critical to our success.”

Opposition to the BondSome within the university community are opposed to the bonds because the bill only mentions physical needs of the universities and community colleges, and makes no mention of teaching positions.

Fred Fisher, an instructor in the political science department, opposes the bonds for these reasons. “I am opposed because it’s not addressing the issues of faculty salaries and positions,” said Fisher. “There is no doubt that the money that the bond would create isn’t needed, because it is, but I have to question whether it’s going to true needs or to satisfy someone’s personal ‘wish list’.”