Wake school board and commissioners call to arms

February 7, 2013 

So this is what it has come to. Two elected public bodies, the Wake County commissioners and the school board, are locked in a bitter, partisan struggle over school governance. Testy exchanges at joint meetings, angry criticism at independent meetings, blatant distrust and suspicion ... these have been the hallmarks of the relations between the boards.

The difficulties have intensified since Democrats wrested control of the school board last year from a failed and destructive Republican majority and then fired the superintendent hired by that majority.

The Democrats and Republicans on these boards cannot get along, and there appear to be no prospects that they’ll ever make up. And now ... now the ultimate in embarrassment for many county residents has come, with each board arming itself, spending public money, to hire a lobbyist as a confrontation looms in the General Assembly. Separate lobbyists for two boards elected by the same voters in the same county will work on lawmakers to take one side against the other.

Republican commissioners, apparently without warning to two Democratic board members, have hired Tom Fetzer, former Raleigh mayor and past chairman of the state Republican Party, to lobby for their viewpoint on three governance issues to be addressed by state lawmakers. School board Democrats authorized $100,000 to be spent for a lobbyist of their own. All the money is coming from public coffers, from the taxpayers.

Ongoing feud

The school board and the commissioners have had a rocky relationship for years. Different boards of commissioners have grown testy about school appropriations, suggesting that the school board doesn’t manage its appropriations from the county well, particularly in the area of land purchases for school sites. Some school board members have criticized the commissioners for shortchanging the schools on budgets.

Currently, Republican commissioners are unhappy that the school board has stashed away sizable reserve “rainy day” funds (now about $32 million), which those commissioners believe should be under their control. And in a recent meeting, commissioners took drastic actions, voting to ask the General Assembly (now in control of fellow Republicans) to give them control of school construction, to allow them to partially fund construction of charter schools, which are public institutions free of conventional rules, and to change the election of school board members from all districts to fewer districts with four at-large members.

All three are flawed ideas, particularly given the tensions between the two groups. The change in elections would make the school board more partisan than it already is and would mean deep-pockets contributors could buy the at-large seats, which would be expensive for which to campaign.

Another way

Taking away schools’ say-so on construction and management would move an important task from those who ultimately know the most about it. And if charters are to retain their independence and identity, taxpayers can’t start providing capital funding.

There is an alternative that might ease at least some of the tension between the school board and commissioners, no matter what the partisan breakdown of members. That would be to give the school board taxing authority and independence. And it would not be exceptional, as over 80 percent of school districts in the United States have taxing authority.

The school board would have to make its case to voters for a tax hike. That would make members more accountable, and more responsive to public concerns, something they occasionally are criticized for not being. The public response to a proposed tax hike would give the school board direct feedback from the people it serves.

So perhaps, while Republican legislators seem to be in a mood to change boards and commissions and the number of judges and it seems a host of other agencies and policies in state government, why not consider this? If it ended the constant bickering between these boards, saved the public money for lobbyists and put more order and less fuss in the running of the public schools, it would be worth it. Well worth it.

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