Wake Commissioners put school bond meetings on hold

Wake Commissioners chairman demands commitments from school board

khui@newsobserver.comOctober 1, 2012 

Unhappy over the firing of Wake schools superintendent Tony Tata, Wake County Board of Commissioners Chairman Paul Coble lashed out at the Democratic school board leadership in a letter released Monday, canceling planned meetings between the two boards on the next school bond referendum.

As a condition to developing a school construction program for voters’ approval next year, Coble demanded commitments to specific projects and a completed school assignment plan. Before last week’s vote to fire Tata, leaders of both boards had met and tentatively set meetings to begin Oct. 12.

“The recent decision by the School Board to fire the Superintendent raises serious concerns about the direction, leadership, and consistency of the Wake County public school system,” Coble wrote to school board Chairman Kevin Hill.

“Clearly the new majority wants to set its own course, which leaves existing and potential partnerships ‘up in the air.’

“The County Manager and Superintendent Tata had worked together on several partnerships, some of which have been approved by the two elected bodies and some of which are still pending. Partnerships only work when each partner can rely on and trust the actions and consistency of the other partner.”

Democratic school board Vice Chairman Keith Sutton said he was surprised that Coble had put the meetings on hold. But Sutton said he understands why Coble wants the reassurance.

“My assumption is that they’re looking for us to make a commitment,” Sutton said. “I can appreciate him wanting that.”

Coble wants the school board to pass resolutions on:

• The new/revised student assignment plan.

• A commitment of at least seven years to house the new boys-only school in a former county building.

• A commitment of at least seven years to operate a high school that would train students in job skills before commissioners agree to buy and renovate the former Coca-Cola facility in South Raleigh.

Coble wrote that once the issues are resolved the commissioners “will be ready to commit time and resources to work with the School Board to develop the next capital plan for the school system.”

Sutton and fellow Democratic school board member Christine Kushner said they don’t intend to walk away from projects such as the Wake Young Men’s Leadership Academy, for which county officials are vacating an 89-year-old building near downtown Raleigh.

Assignment plan

The directive from Coble to Hill is the latest development in more than three years of often partisan conflict over the direction of the 150,000-student Wake County school system, which has an annual budget of more than $1 billion. Tata, a retired Army brigadier general, was hired by a Republican-led school board elected in 2009 and fired by a Democrat-controlled board which came to power in 2011.

The new board, with Hill at the helm, is in the process of redesigning a choice-based assignment plan put in place for this school year. Their plan is to replace it with a modified approach, with each address tied to a specific school, in time for the 2013-14 school year.

“We do need, of course, continued discussion on the assignment plan,” Kushner said. “I think I have been clear that the choice plan is not sustainable. There has been an increase of busing of 20 or more percent. We need to simplify and give real stability and certainty to our parents.”

Coble has said the lack of a completed plan makes it impossible to develop a comprehensive approach to school construction.

“We need to know what their direction is going to be,” Coble said before Monday’s commissioners’ meeting. “They need to right their ship before we get going.”

The Republican majority on the Board of Commissioners has been openly critical of the Democratic school board majority’s decision to fire Tata and pay $253,625 to buy out his contract. But Democratic Commissioner Betty Lou Ward said the entire body should have been consulted before sending the letter to the school board.

“We should all have had the opportunity to express ourselves,” Ward said. Fellow Democratic Commissioner Erv Portman, however, said he agreed that a delay in talks would be helpful.

“I think the community wants to see both sides of that (school) board set partisanship aside,” Portman said.

The tensions between both boards are a major issue because school leaders are working to get a school construction bond referendum on the ballot in 2013.

The commissioners must approve both the amount of a bond issue and the decision to put a bond issue on the ballot.

Voters could be asked to borrow $1 billion to pay for the construction of new schools and the renovation of existing schools. Projections call for additional tens of thousands of students to enter the state’s largest school system during the next decade, growth that could strain existing schools far beyond capacity.

School board leaders had hoped for a vote on the bond issue as early as May, but that possibility seemed remote as of Monday.

Bond referendum

Sutton said a May vote was ambitious. The alternative could be a vote in October or November of next year.

If there’s a delay in getting a bond referendum passed, Republican school board member John Tedesco said the blame goes to the Democratic members who fired Tata. Tedesco said it will take months to get a new superintendent caught up on the district.

“By firing the superintendent, they put us back more than six months,” Tedesco said. “Why would the public support giving us $1 billion in taxpayer money?”

Hui: 919-829-4534

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