Wake commissioners back county funding for charter construction

jshaffer@newsobserver.comJanuary 22, 2013 

— Wake commissioners agreed to seek deep changes to the county school system Tuesday, voting to ask the General Assembly to sign off on a wish list that could change who owns schools, how they get built and how the school board gets elected.

In a string of 4-3 decisions that split along party lines, the Republican-majority commission voted to ask the legislature to allow county funding of some of the construction of charter schools. In addition, the commission asked to take over the land acquisition and school-building roles now in the hands of the school board.

The commission also sought to change the school board’s structure so that five members would be chosen by geographic districts and four selected at large. All are now elected by district.

The Board of Commissioners’ proposals fall in line with a GOP-dominated state government whose leaders have said they want fundamental changes in the nature of public education, including more options for families.

The commission’s moves Tuesday also highlighted an increasingly fractured relationship with the Wake school board, where Democrats hold a majority.

Several times, Commissioner Betty Lou Ward, a Democrat, called for more dialogue with the board, saying Tuesday’s votes would upset the school board and further sour relations with them.

Commissioner Tony Gurley, a Republican, noted that the commission has sought some of these changes for years, in some cases a decade, and has seen the school board give no ground.

“I don’t think they’re going to support this,” he said.

Reaction from the school board, also meeting Tuesday, was swift.

“It’s in effect a bulldozer,” board Chair Keith Sutton, a Democrat, said from the meeting. “Taking what we need.”

Disagreement between the two panels comes at a time when they have been meeting to craft a school-constructions bond issue, potentially as a ballot item in elections this fall.

Right now, all nine school board members come from districts across Wake County. While the board is officially nonpartisan, both political parties have been actively involved in supporting candidates. In recent years, control has shifted between the parties, and in the most recent election, the Democrats’ candidates regained the majority.

Under the new plan backed by Republican commissioners, each voter would vote in races for five board seats — one for the district of his or her residence, plus four at-large seats. The redrawing of new districts would be key to the balance of power on the school board, and to whether the Republican suburbs of the county would have more clout.

Republican commissioners said they want the change because voters in Wake County feel underrepresented. A school board member might not give priority to a parent whose child goes to school in his district, but whose parents live and vote in another.

“People want to vote for more than one school board member,” said Commission Chair Joe Bryan, a Republican.

Commissioner James West, a Democrat, called such a shift “politically volatile” and said that no one he has spoken to supports it.

Democrats made similar objections to charter-school funding.

Charter schools in North Carolina get public funding, but operate independently of local school boards, and they enjoy more leeway from some requirements.

Gurley said the county doesn’t seek a mandate to fund their construction, but only the option to do so. There would be standards for which charter school got construction money, and the sum could not exceed half the average square-foot cost for Wake County schools.

Still, Commissioner Caroline Sullivan, a Democrat, said charter schools get built in places where the need for schools isn’t greatest, and sometimes lack standard features that traditional schools have, such as a cafeteria.

“A lot of these charter schools fail,” she said. “If they fail, we may own them.”

Wake County could face a major charter school expansion in the next few years.

Fourteen charter schools are in operation in Wake, with another looking for final approval to open this fall. As many as 13 more charter schools could open in Wake in 2014.

Later Tuesday, school board member Susan Evans, a Democrat, said giving the county ownership of school buildings and land would confuse the public about who is responsible for education. Currently, the school board owns and maintains the district’s schools.

On the charter schools issue, Evans charged that many charters are run by private groups and for-profit companies, stating that it wouldn’t be fair to give them money for school construction.

"I’m not sure that taxpayers will think this is a fair way to spend these funds that are so desperately needed to meet the ever-growing capacity needs of our public school system,” she said.

The longest conversation among the list of legislative goals came in the discussion over the commission’s desire to own school sites, to hold the authority to build them and to take control over their maintenance. Gurley cited the example of a school in southern Wake County for which the school board would have paid twice as much: $8 million rather than the $4 million price the county got.

“We have proven to be better fiscal stewards,” Gurley said.

Making that move will allow the school system to focus on academic excellence, Bryan said. But throughout the meeting, members acknowledged the feathers their moves are sure to ruffle.

“It does create some angst,” Bryan said. “But it’s a conversation our community should be willing to have.”

Staff writer T. Keung Hui contributed to this report.

Shaffer: (919) 829-4818

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