Wake school changes have state GOP support

khui@newsobserver.comJanuary 23, 2013 

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Republican Rep. Paul Stam speaks about the changes to the Racial Justice Act being considered on the floor during the House session at the N.C. Legislature on June 13, 2012. The bill passed.

CHRIS SEWARD — cseward@newsobserver.com

A top Republican state lawmaker says he supports both changing the way the Wake County school board is elected and taking away the body’s power to buy land and own schools.

State Rep. Paul Stam of Apex, House Speaker pro tempore, said Wednesday that he expects the GOP-led legislature to pass new laws that would allow the Wake County Board of Commissioners to take over ownership of schools from the Board of Education and to require that some Wake school board seats be elected on a countywide basis.

Stam also said he’s expecting the legislative session that gets under way next week to produce a bill that would allow all counties to help charter schools pay for building their facilities.

“These changes should have happened years ago,” Stam said. “The details still need to be worked out.”

Republican leaders, including Stam, have long argued that parents should have more choice in the way schools are run, and have proposed additional charter schools as part of overall changes in public education. With Republicans now in charge of the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature, the party seemingly has a clear path to the lasting change it has been advocating.

However Democrats argued in response to Tuesday’s Board of Commissioners vote requesting the legislation that the changes would hurt the traditional public school system and should receive more consideration and feedback from the public before the legislature votes on them.

State Rep. Chris Malone, who was on the Wake school board until December, said he talked Wednesday with Stam about details of the changes.

“This is not picking on a school board,” said Malone, a Republican from Wake Forest. “This has been talked about for a decade.”

But another former Wake school board member said the changes are too divisive to put into effect.

“I would hope that we wouldn’t move on it,” said state Rep. Rosa Gill, a Raleigh Democrat and former Wake school board chairwoman. “We have more things in the General Assembly to work on than controversial legislation that divides a county.”

The stage for debate on the issues was set Tuesday when the Wake commissioners approved, on a series of 4-3 party line votes, a Republican request that the General Assembly:

• give commissioners control over building, ownership and maintenance of schools;

• permit commissioners to provide funding for charter schools to buy land and build classroom facilities; and

• create at-large school board seats in Wake.

The proposed changes emphasize a major rift between the county’s two elective bodies. The controversy increases tensions, even as the GOP-led Board of Commissioners and the Democrat-led school board are attempting to work together on details of a school-construction bond issue to put before voters this fall.

Joe Bryan, the Republican chairman of the Board of Commissioners, said some members of the Wake legislative delegation have been “very receptive” to the changes. Republicans outnumber Democrats in both Wake’s House and Senate delegations.

Instead of just affecting Wake, Stam said, legislators may pass statewide legislation to allow commissioners in all 100 counties to own schools and fund charter school construction.

At-large seats inclusive, pricey

Stam said the General Assembly also should pass local legislation changing how Wake school board members are elected.

All nine school board members are elected by geographic district. Most of the state’s 115 school districts have at least some at-large members.

After Raleigh and Wake County merged school systems in 1976, the county’s smaller municipalities lobbied for districts because they feared that at-large elections would allow Raleigh voters to dominate the board. But during the past decade’s massive growth in areas outside Raleigh, suburban parents and elected officials have become more vocal about establishing at-large seats.

GOP commissioners want four at-large school board seats with the other five board members elected by district. Republican commissioners say the public will be represented better if they have a say in the majority of school board seats.

In addition to creating at-large seats, Stam said legislators also may draw up the new district boundaries instead of leaving the realignment to the school board. The Wake County school board has drawn its own districts in the past. Legislators took similar action in 2011 by redrawing the boundaries for seats for Guilford County’s Board of Commissioners.

During Tuesday’s meeting, school board member Susan Evans, a Democrat, argued that at-large school board elections would make it “too expensive for the average citizen” to run.

“Having to run a countywide campaign and appeal to massive numbers of voters in an area that basically equates to two congressional districts added together requires a large monetary and time investment,” she said. “The community may then have to worry about whether those with the most money begin to control our school board.”

Cost-effectiveness vs. control

Like the change in school board elections, ownership of schools represents a change that Wake commissioners have long wanted.

Commissioners fund school construction but the school district owns the buildings and handles maintenance. Republican commissioners say they’ve proven to be better financial stewards than the school board.

“They’re (commissioners are) responsible for paying for them (schools),” said Malone, the state legislator. “They assume the liability. They should also assume the assets.”

But Leanne Winner, the lobbyist for the N.C. School Boards Association, said local control actually would decrease if commissioners owned the schools.

“The people who are in charge of the schools should be responsible for them,” she said.

Local funds for charter schools

The idea of providing funding for charter schools to build their facilities is a new goal for Wake commissioners.

Republican Commissioner Tony Gurley said the move makes sense because Wake is facing rapid growth. Commissioners are willing to give charter schools money for classrooms if they can build them for no more than half the school district’s average cost. The county would own the building and lease it to the charter school.

“With an unlimited number of charter schools and projected growth, we’re looking for cheaper ways to house students,” Gurley said.

Charter schools in North Carolina get public funds for operations, but work independently of local school boards and enjoy more leeway from some requirements. But they’re only allowed to use taxpayer dollars to lease facilities, not to pay for their construction.

“Charter schools are desperately in need of help for facilities,” said Eddie Goodall, executive director of the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association.

The 2011 law lifting the state’s cap on charter schools originally would have permitted county governments to help fund their construction, but the provision was removed before passage. Stam said he expects that language to be approved in new statewide legislation this year.

But traditional public schools oppose the idea because it would mean that they’d lose some school-construction funding to the charter schools. Winner said that the proposal leaves too many unanswered questions, such as what would happen to the facilities if a charter school closes.

Critics want referendum

While supporters of the changes are optimistic of passage, opponents are hoping at least to slow the bills’ momentum.

Gill, the state legislator, said the changes should be put up for a referendum first to see whether Wake voters support them.

That sentiment was echoed by Evans, the Wake school board member.

“I certainly hope that something as important as these issues would be put before the public to consider before laws are changed to accommodate these requests by the county commissioners,” Evans said.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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