Board battle

February 9, 2013 

Joe Bryan, the chairman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners, stopped by The News & Observer last week to explain why the board’s Republican majority decided to seek changes in state law regarding how the Wake County school board operates.

As he left the building, Bryan pointed out a framed photo hanging in the hallway. It showed the USS Josephus Daniels, a guided-missile cruiser named for the newspaper’s former owner and editor, who also was secretary of the Navy under President Woodrow Wilson. Bryan, a Navy veteran, said he served on the ship. He asked a photographer to take his photo standing beside the picture.

The chairman posing with a formidable battle craft symbolized what he had made plain to reporters and editors earlier – Bryan and his fellow Republicans are going to war. Their target is the Democrat-led school board.

The commissioners are asking the Republican-controlled General Assembly to make three changes in state statutes that would alter the school board’s legal DNA. The changes would transfer the school board’s power to build schools to the county commissioners, alter how school board members are elected and allow the commissioners to give capital funding to charter schools.

Keith Sutton, chairman of the school board, said of the three-pronged proposal: “Their plan is to decimate the public school system as we know it.”

With Republicans in control of the General Assembly, Bryan said it’s folly for the school board to resist. “My reaction is, if we’re going to keep score, we’re going to win,” he said.

Like real wars, this one represents the failure of politics. If it’s not called off, there will be wounds, but no winners. The losers will be the county’s schoolchildren and its taxpayers.

No good reason

The commissioners have taken up this fight now because the school board is vulnerable to second-guessing due to its own recent partisan splits and because commissioners have enough support in the General Assembly to get whatever they request. Those aren’t good reasons, but for conservative Republican commissioners Paul Coble, Tony Gurley and Phil Matthews, who don’t like the school board’s progressive tilt, that’s reason enough. Why Bryan, normally a moderate and a mediator, is leading the charge is as mysterious as it is disappointing.

In a saner world, members of the two boards would sit down and work out the big issue: Is it better for the county or the school system to buy school sites and oversee construction and maintenance? Perhaps they could take a trial run at the county’s playing a bigger role and see whether there were savings. Meanwhile, commissioners wouldn’t meddle in school-centered issues such as how the school board is elected or how charter schools are funded.

The Republican commissioners say turning over the purchase of school sites and the building of schools to the county would eliminate redundancies as the school system initiates a purchase and the county approves it.

Evidence and experience

That sounds reasonable, but there’s no evidence that the county could build quality schools in the right locations and in sufficient numbers while also lowering the costs of school construction. The Wake school system – pressed to create seats for ever more students in what is now a 150,000-student system – actually has more construction experience than the county. The school system has 169 schools, more than 40 of them built since 2001.

In any event, schools shouldn’t be built with an emphasis on minimum cost. Well-built schools with amenities beyond bare-bones institutional are a better environment for learning, and they last longer. The school system knows where schools should go and what should go into them. Having the county build schools may be as ill-advised as having the school system build jails.

Bryan says the commissioners are acting to save money and increase taxpayer confidence so a school bond issue will pass this year. But this campaign could have the opposite effect.

By bombarding the school board with charges of incompetent financial stewardship, the Republican commissioners could jeopardize passage of the bond issue. If it fails, get ready for major school crowding issues, a diminishing of the school system’s reputation and a drag on the real estate market.

During an interview, Sutton was told that if the bond issue is rejected, “You’re going to have a problem.” He paused a moment and replied, “The community is going to have a problem.”

He’s right. The commissioners’ moves against the school board aren’t limited to a feud between two elected bodies. All residents of Wake County could lose if the Republican commissioners insist on “We’re going to win.”

It’s time for Bryan to dock the warship and start the peace talks.

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