Wake schools chairman accuses county commissioners of ‘power grab’

khui@newsobserver.comFebruary 7, 2013 

  • Putting diversity back in student assignment

    Wake County school board members began the process Thursday of revising the student assignment policy to once again incorporate diversity as one of the goals.

    The board wants to avoid creating schools with high concentrations of low-performing students, and also is weighing whether to add a socio-economic component when assigning students.

    The revised policy would be built on achievement, proximity of homes to schools, stability, and school-building capacity. Administrators said the changes need to be finalized by the summer to develop an assignment plan for the 2014-15 school year.

    Board members said Thursday they need to promote achievement through more than just assignment. The board is working also on policies to close achievement gaps and provide equitable resources for students.

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 board’s 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 there’s 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 doesn’t make sense to turn school construction over to people with no experience.

“There’s 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 won’t walk away from that.”

The school board’s 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 county’s 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 hasn’t recommended a person yet for the board to hire.

Bryan said he’s 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.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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