Wake County school board Chairman Keith Sutton accused county commissioners Thursday of attempting a power grab with proposed state legislative changes that he said would decimate the school system.
Commissioners want to change state law to take over the school boards job of building, maintaining and owning schools. They also want the 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 plan is to decimate the public school system as we know it and build it up in some other way, Sutton said in a meeting Thursday with News & Observer reporters and editors.
But Joe Bryan, chairman of the board of commissioners, said the public sees the changes as the right answer.
The public sees the linkage between the county owning and building schools, he said. The public sees the sense of being able to elect a majority of school board members.
Sutton said theres a reason why state law puts school boards in charge of construction while putting commissioners in charge of funding. He said giving all the authority to commissioners would be like putting the fox in the hen house.
It seems to me the intent was a clear separation of powers, he said.
Sutton also pointed out that the school system builds and maintains far more buildings than the county, and receives awards for its work. He said it doesnt make sense to turn school construction over to people with no experience.
Theres no legal, factual or performance data to show they can do it better, Sutton said. They may be trying to capitalize on some of the bad publicity the school system has endured over the past year. I wont walk away from that.
The school boards public image has suffered over the past year from fights with former Superintendent Tony Tata and racy allegations that former school board members Debra Goldman and Chris Malone had an affair.
Sutton said they would have been willing to talk with commissioners about having some school board seats be elected countywide, but the countys decision to go straight to legislators with the issue shows how little respect they have for the school board.
It seems to be more of a power grab than anything else, he said.
But Bryan pointed to the N.C. Association of County Commissioners push for legislation that would make it possible for any of the 100 counties to take over school construction.
Lobbyists to fight battles
Both the school board and the commissioners plan to use taxpayer-funded lobbyists to make their case to the Republican-led state legislature.
The county hired Tom Fetzer, the former Raleigh mayor and past state Republican Party chairman, at $5,000 a month for a maximum of $25,000 to lobby legislators on the Republican-led commissioners goals.
The Democratic-led school board voted this week to authorize spending up to $100,000 for a lobbyist. Interim Superintendent Stephen Gainey said Thursday that he hasnt recommended a person yet for the board to hire.
Bryan said hes talked with state legislators and seen some drafts of bills that he expects to be introduced soon.
They clearly have the horses to get it passed in the General Assembly, Sutton said.