The struggle between Wake County’s two most powerful governing boards has escalated to the use of hired guns, with the Board of Commissioners and the Board of Education each planning to spend tax money on lobbyists to press their cases at the state legislature.
The opposing moves are novel, if not unprecedented.
Commissioners want to change state law to take over the school board’s jobs of building, maintaining and owning schools. They also want authority to give charter schools money to help build facilities, and to require that four of the nine school board seats be elected at large.
The moves by the boards come even as they are trying jointly to develop a bond issue that leaders of both panels agree is necessary to build new schools to meet growth demands.
With the General Assembly and the governor’s mansion controlled by Republicans, Democratic school board members acknowledged that they’ll have a hard time winning. But school board members said they have to fight to maintain their authority.
“The county commissioners have taken this aggressive action for which we have no choice but to be defensive,” Democratic board member Susan Evans said at Tuesday’s board meeting.
On Tuesday, the school board voted 5-2 along party lines, with Democrats agreeing to let interim Superintendent Stephen Gainey spend as much as $100,000 to hire a lobbyist to oppose the changes backed by the Republican-led commissioners.
Before that, said Joe Bryan, Republican chairman of the Board of Commissioners, the commissioners had hired their own lobbyist Monday to push for the changes. Bryan said Wednesday that Tom Fetzer, the former Raleigh mayor and past state Republican Party chairman, will be paid $5,000 a month – for a maximum of $25,000 – to lobby legislators on the commissioners’ goals.
Last year, the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research named Fetzer the second-most influential of 798 registered lobbyists in the state.
“My reaction is, if we’re going to keep score, we’re going to win,” Bryan said Wednesday in a meeting with News & Observer reporters and editors.
The move was not discussed during a commissioners meeting. Board members Caroline Sullivan and Betty Lou Ward, both Democrats, said they didn’t learn of the move until Wednesday.
Democratic school board Chairman Keith Sutton called for the vote to hire a lobbyist to fight the commissioners’ legislative proposals.
“The county commission has adopted a legislative agenda that includes a number of proposals that I feel are in direct conflict with the best interests of our school system,” he said Tuesday night at the board meeting.
“We need to be in the best position to not only be able to respond, but to defend – for a lack of a better word – ourselves, and try to maintain what is in the best interests of students, families and our schools in Wake County,” Sutton said.
While it’s not unusual for county commissioners and school boards to disagree, especially over funding issues, hiring lobbyists specifically to try to win the support of state lawmakers in a local fight may be a new tactic in the state.
“I think for North Carolina, that’s unprecedented,” said David McLennan, a political science professor at William Peace University. Many municipalities have lobbyists, McLennan said, and counties are represented collectively by a lobbyist for their statewide association. But in this case, McLennan said, “It’s two government bodies in the same county, lobbying essentially over the issue of power.”
State Rep. Deborah Ross, a Raleigh Democrat, said it can be appropriate for public bodies to hire lobbyists to get their bills through the General Assembly. However, the Wake controversy appears to be an attempt to have the legislature settle an essentially local dispute, Ross said.
“I think it’s unfortunate,” she said of the cost of hiring opposing lobbyists. “Wake County and Wake County schools both have pressing needs.”
Two Republican state legislators criticized the school board’s decision Wednesday.
State Rep. Chris Malone, who until December was a Wake school board member, said his former colleagues should individually contact legislators instead of hiring a lobbyist.
“I believe it is unwise and counterproductive for the current Wake School Board to argue that they are best positioned to protect taxpayer-provided school construction dollars by wasting tax dollars to hire an unneeded lobbyist,” Malone said in a written statement.
Malone’s statement was part of a press release issued by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group. Art Pope, now the governor’s budget director, was one of its national directors until Gov. Pat McCrory chose him for his new job in December.
Dallas Woodhouse, director of the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity, said it’s “an unconscionable abuse of taxpayer funding” for the school board to hire a lobbyist when groups such as the N.C. School Boards Association, the State Board of Education and the Public Schools Forum already have their own taxpayer-funded representatives.
When asked about the Board of Commissioners’ engagement of a lobbyist, Woodhouse said he opposed that, too. “We would have a problem with that as well,” he said.
On Jan. 22, commissioners voted along party lines to add the school-related items to the changes they’ll urge the General Assembly to adopt this year.
Republican commissioners said they feel they can do a better job of school construction, and that they want the ability to help charter schools build their facilities. They also said voters should be able to vote for a majority of school board seats.
“We want them to focus on the academics in the schools and the programming inside the schools,” Bryan said.
The money for the school district’s lobbyist would come from its $32.1 million undesignated fund balance, colloquially known as the rainy-day fund.
“That will go over well with commissioners,” Republican school board member John Tedesco said sarcastically Tuesday.
Tedesco was referencing some Republican commissioners’ views that the school system doesn’t need a rainy-day fund. Some GOP commissioners are also unhappy that the fund balance is so high, saying the school board should return part of that money to the county in accordance with its own policy.
Relations between the two boards have worsened since Democrats regained control of the officially non-partisan school board in 2011. Things grew even more tense after the Democratic board majority fired Superintendent Tony Tata, who was popular with commissioners, in September.
Bryan said Wednesday that settling the long-running argument over which board will build and keep the schools ultimately will make it easier for the two boards to get along. One way or the other, he said, the issue will be settled at the end of the legislative session.
With that out of the way, he said, the boards can work together on one goal on which they agree: passage of the bond issue for money to build and renovate schools.
The Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce in 2008 proposed turning over school construction to the commissioners in return for them agreeing to provide adequate funding to operate the schools. No deal was reached.
While the discord may not be ideal, chamber President Harvey Schmitt said both boards have no choice but to reach an agreement on a bond issue to meet the community’s needs.
“I’m confident they’ll be able to put aside their personal discord and come up with the solution,” he said.