School spending rules are eased

Wake reverses June decision

Staff WriterJanuary 13, 2009 

— In an effort to defuse tension with members of the county school board Monday, Wake commissioners appear to have ramped up partisan friction among themselves.

In a 4-3 vote down party lines, the new Democratic majority reversed a requirement that the school board ask the commissioners for permission if school administrators shift spending by more than 15 percent of its approved budget in any of several broad categories.

Republican Tony Gurley lamented that he considered the measure a signature achievement of his tenure on the county board, shortly before the Democrats cut off debate in the middle of his remarks by ruling the past chairman out of order.

New Chairman Harold Webb was so eager to vote he declared the item approved immediately after he and the other Democrats said "aye," forgetting to ask whether anyone on the board was opposed, as is required.

Democrat Stan Norwalk, whose election in November shifted control of the county board to his party, said the spending rule had become an emotional one for members of the school board.

"This is the commissioners saying to the school board, 'We don't trust you,' " Norwalk said.

All of the incumbent Democrats -- Webb, Lindy Brown and Betty Lou Ward -- voted in June in favor of the restriction, known as budgeting by "purpose and function," as part of a compromise with Republican Commissioner Joe Bryan that boosted education spending by $18.5 million.

Under state law, school boards are elected to run school systems, but county commissioners are tasked with taxing residents to pay for school operations and setting the amount to be spent. Republican commissioners had pushed for re-enacting the provision in Wake County after they voted 4-3 along party lines in 2007 to deny a request from the school board for $4.7 million to convert 22 schools to a year-round academic calender.

The board, dominated by Democrats, converted the schools anyway, moving the money from a savings fund the system built from budget appropriations that went unspent. The system currently has more than $17.3 million in the account -- much to the ire of Republicans criticized each year for not adequately funding schools.

In a letter Dec. 4 to the commissioners, school board Chairwoman Rosa Gill asked the county board to remove the budgetary restriction, saying it was burdensome.

"Monitoring budget adjustments at purpose and function levels requires additional administrative staff time both at the central and school levels," Gill wrote. In lean economic times, with schools leaders agreeing to cut $5.7 million from their budget, it would save money to repeal the purpose and function requirement, she argued.

GOP Commissioner Paul Coble questioned whether the measure was really onerous, or school administrators just didn't like it.

"This isn't about not giving y'all money," Coble told David Neter, the system's chief business officer, at Monday's meeting. "... We want to make sure when you spend dollars they are spent for the purpose you say they are going to be spent for and not transferred to other areas."

After Democrats argued school spending was sufficiently transparent, Gurley attempted to run down a list of examples when, in his view, the school board had fallen short. First on his list was the system's busing policy, which Gurley said costs taxpayers millions because of the system's diversity policy, aimed at balancing the distribution of low-income students to bolster academic performance.

After several of the board's Democrats objected, Webb ruled that Gurley's views on school spending were not germane to the debate and called for a vote.

Though Republicans used their power when they were in the majority, board members were hard-pressed Monday to remember an instance when a commissioner's comments had been cut off in such an abrupt manner.

"In general, we've allowed people to have their say," said Gurley, who served as chairman from 2005 to 2007. "It was ridiculous. I would have never done this to one of them."

michael.biesecker@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4698

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