Wake commissioner candidates take sides on Tata, transit, school bond

Commissioner candidates spar over Tata, transit, bonds

tgoldsmith@newsobserver.comOctober 4, 2012 

  • The Wake County Board of Commissioners The seven-member Wake County Board of Commissioners oversees government for a county of more than 900,000 people. Members are elected to staggered four-year terms, with either three or four seats on the ballot every two years. Commissioners approve the overall county budget, which includes about a quarter of the school system’s annual operating budget of $1.1 billion. The Board of Education has no taxing power of its own and cannot place referendum items on the ballot without approval from the Board of Commissioners. This year, three seats are before voters: District 4: Republican Dale Cooke and Democrat Caroline Sullivan are competing for a seat to be vacated by Erv Portman, who’s running for a state Senate seat in Cary. District 5: Incumbent Commissioner James West is running for election to the post to which he was appointed in 2010 as a replacement for an ailing Harold Webb. District 6: 24-year incumbent Betty Lou Ward is running for re-election against Republican challenger Paul Fitts. Seats held by Republican commissioner Paul Coble, the chair; Phil Matthews, vice chair; Tony Gurley and Joe Bryan are up for election in 2014. Even if Democrats win all three seats in November, they will continue to represent a minority on the board.

— At a Thursday forum, Republican candidates for Wake County commissioner seats strongly condemned last week’s firing of Wake County schools Superintendent Tony Tata, while Democrats said the decision was the prerogative of their elected colleagues on the county school board.

Paying more than $250,000 to get rid of Tata was a “colossal” mistake, according to candidates Dale Cooke and Paul Fitts. Wake County school board members, in a 5-4 partisan vote, sent Tata on his way Sept. 25 with more than a quarter million dollars in severance pay over what Democrats called a strained relationship with Tata that stalled their initiatives as the board majority.

“The man was doing a great job,” said Cooke, who has led several high-tech companies and is running for the District 4 seat. “You don’t fire people without a stated reason.”

In other divided opinions at a forum at Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church, Democrats came out strongly for a school bond issue and a referendum on a transit plan, while Republicans urged holding the line on taxes and a more gradual pace on school construction and a transit plan.

The event brought together about 30 people to hear candidates for three of the board’s district seats. All are held by Democratic incumbents, who make up a minority on the board. The board has attracted recent attention because of Republican Chairman Paul Coble’s public criticism of Tata’s firing, and his postponing of joint meetings between the two boards to discuss a school-construction bond issue until the school board meets certain conditions.

Cooke questioned whether a bond referendum to build schools is necessary. Instead of borrowing money through a bond issue, Cooke suggested, funding for schools should come through growth in the community, and related growth in property and sales taxes.

Democrats on the panel disagreed.

“Right now we have a whopping problem facing our schools today, in terms of capacity, that we need to address,” said Democrat Caroline Sullivan, a Raleigh parent of two middle-schoolers and a former fundraiser for legislative leader Marc Basnight. “We are at that point where the capacity issue is having a serious impact on our children’s education.”

Fitts, a mortgage lender and Republican candidate to replace incumbent Democratic commissioner Betty Lou Ward, said Wake County hasn’t worked hard enough to come up with innovative ways to meet increasing school-capacity needs.

“Why aren’t we looking at 3600 Wake Forest Road as a school?” Fitts asked, referring to the former school system headquarters building that is vacant. “Why aren’t we looking at the Dorothea Dix property?”

Ward supports a bond issue for the schools.

“I think the most important job we have as county commissioners is to support our schools,” said Ward, a member of the board since 1988.

Veteran educator James West, appointed to Harold Webb’s District 5 seat in 2010, has the luxury of running unopposed. He has said a property tax increase will likely be necessary to meet schools’ capacity needs.

“Unfortunately, right now it is on hold,” West said, referring to the hiatus in talks imposed by Coble. “But this, too, will pass, I truly believe.”

Goldsmith: 919-829-8929

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