Editorial

Power play from the Wake commissioners

Republican county commissioners seek more authority over Wake school funds.

January 23, 2013 

Everyone knew it was coming, but that made it no less frustrating when on Tuesday the GOP majority on the Wake County Board of Commissioners took aim at the Wake school board.

In three party-line votes, commissioners voted to seek authority from the General Assembly to take actions that would dramatically change the board’s relationship with Wake County schools – and not for the better.

The actions came under the heading of setting a legislative agenda. With the votes, commissioners put in requests for the legislative approval they need to change policy with regard to the Wake schools.

The commissioners asked legislators to allow them to own school sites and facilities. They also sought permission to invest public money in the construction of charter schools and to change the election of Wake school board members from nine members elected from districts to five members from districts and four at-large.

Underlying these actions is the political tension created when the school board’s Republican majority was turned out during the 2011 election and Democrats then fired Superintendent Tony Tata, who had been hired by the Republicans.

Timing is everything

In this context, and with a Republican majority in the General Assembly likely to go along with their legislative agenda, GOP commissioners went at the school board with the zeal of partisan score settling.

The facilities ownership issue is more evidence of the anger on the part of some commissioners who clashed with the schools repeatedly over the years on funding and policy issues. Republican commissioners have been annoyed by what they say is the school board’s refusal to discuss sites and purchases in advance, and by the fact that the school system in the past has been willing to pay too much for some land. Commissioner Tony Gurley noted that one piece of property was bought, after commissioners intervened, for far less than the schools originally intended to pay.

Commissioner Caroline Sullivan, a Democrat, responded by noting that commissioners already review and approve money for purchases, which she correctly characterized as “checks and balances.” That gives commissioners the final say.

Commissioners also want authority to invest public money in the construction of charter schools. Charter schools are publicly funded for their operating costs but function independent of school board oversight. Currently, charter schools are not given money for construction, and that’s a wise policy. Getting in the building business would be expensive, surely draining funds from traditional schools.

Sullivan, who tried to be a calm voice in this contentious meeting, noted that kind of policy change could mean that if the charters failed, and some do, the county would be stuck with the buildings.

A GOP blessing

Then there’s the proposal to change the school board’s representation. This is a doozy. Currently, each of the nine districts is represented by one school board member. The logic behind this is simple: District-only representation means the board membership is more evenly distributed across the county, preventing members from certain areas from dominating the board.

Commissioners would like to have four at-large members for whom all voters would cast ballots and five district representatives. Each voter would, commissioners say, be voting for five people or a “majority” of the board. Thus the people would have more power.

Curious. Five districts would mean district representatives would have a considerably larger number of people to represent, weakening the connection of parents to the board. And let’s call this what it is: Republican commissioners remain angry that Democrats retook the school board majority.

So commissioners came up with the new election plan, which just happens to provide Republicans with the chance to pour money into the at-large races and some of the district ones to regain their majority. Sure, commissioners could have been more subtle about it, but why?

There’s another disturbing question as well: Why would commissioners bring up these contentious topics on the eve of a needed school construction bond vote? These issues are not going to help build public confidence in the bond issue and in fact could do real damage. If Republican commissioners really want to help the schools as they say they do, they have a strange way of showing it.

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