Wake County Board of Commissioners Chairman Paul Coble said Monday that the county school board needs to hire a new superintendent and complete a new assignment plan before putting a school construction bond on the ballot for November 2013.
School officials and board members have said a bond would likely appear on the fall ballot next year, in amounts ranging from $300 million to $1 billion. But Coble said it would be a mistake to put a bond before the public until the school board resolves uncertainty about student assignment and the lack of professional leadership since the board fired former chief Tony Tata in September.
“There are things that have to happen before we move forward,” Coble said during an interview after his State of the County address. “The voters are not happy with the school board.”
Wake school projections forecast an increase of tens of thousands of students by 2020. Coble was asked how the school system could deal with the growth.
“That should focus them very well,” Coble said, adding that the system could find interim capacity for students if needed.
School board Vice Chairman Keith Sutton said the planning staffs of the county commissioners and school board have been working together on preparing a bond proposal to meet the demands of growth. But the school board can’t make the call on whether the proposal appears on the ballot.
“It’s up to the commissioners and if they disagree with the assessment that the staff has made that’s certainly their prerogative,” said Sutton, a Democrat. “The needs are there; there’s no question about that.”
Work between the two boards on a school construction bond issue has taken as long as 18 months, Coble said. Relations between the Republican majority on the Board of Commissioners and the Democratic majority on the school board have been strained since Tata was fired. Coble was a strong supporter of Tata.
The commissioners must approve the placement of any bond issue on the ballot. Coble said he wasn’t making a threat, but also couldn’t promise that a bond issue will be on the ballot in 2013.
“We’d have to get cracking by next spring for that to happen,” County Manager David Cooke said of a possible fall vote. “That’s a lot to do.”
School board member John Tedesco, a Republican, said a bond in 2013 would be “optimistic” and that a bond proposal might not be ready until late 2014 or early 2015. He said it will take time to hire a new superintendent, hire a new facilities officer to oversee school construction staff, develop a new comprehensive student assignment plan and work with commissioners on what will be in the next bond.
“We’re looking at a lot of variables that will play into developing the bond and, for the lack of a better word, the selling of a bond,” he said.
Democratic Board of Commissioners member Betty Lou Ward said after Monday’s meeting that she continues to support a school bond referendum next year, a view she expressed during her successful re-election bid in November.
YWCA building purchase
Republican member Joe Bryan crossed the aisle Monday to vote in favor of the school system’s purchase of the former YWCA building on Hargett Street for $1.1 million. A use for the building has not been decided, but it could become an elementary school or part of the system’s Young Men’s Leadership Academy, which will move into a renovated school across the street next fall.
Coble and GOP colleagues Tony Gurley and Phil Matthews opposed the purchase.
“They made a case that there’s a shortage of seats in the central region,” Bryan said of the purchase after a presentation by the school system. “We have a need for (the former YWCA) and it’s $100,000 below market price.”
During his State of the County address, Coble noted the county’s continued triple-A bond rating, passage of a bond issue to expand Wake Tech, operation of government without a tax increase and the prospect of increased revenue next year through economic growth. During the speech the only mention Coble made of increasing school capacity came in one of the goals for 2013: “Working with the school board on a realistic capital plan to keep up with growth.”
The meeting marked the last appearance as a commissioner by Democrat Erv Portman, who elected not to run for the seat to which he was appointed to replace Stan Norwalk, who resigned in poor health. Portman, who lost his campaign for a state Senate seat, urged that the board work together in a nonpartisan fashion to avoid a “crisis-to-bond” approach to funding school construction.
Staff writer T. Keung Hui contributed to this report.