School ownership, Wake election proposals moving forward in legislature

khui@newsobserver.comFebruary 16, 2013 

Republican legislators say they’re moving forward with a statewide bill that would allow counties to take over ownership of schools. Also advancing is a local bill to change the way Wake County school board members are elected.

But at least one GOP legislator says a proposal to let counties help charter schools build their facilities is off the table.

The Wake County Board of Commissioners first urged the Republican-led legislature to make a trio of dramatic changes on Jan. 22, maintaining that commissioners deserved the authority more than the school board.

“I believe we can convince the public that we are being fiscally responsible, much more easily than the school board can convince the public that they will be responsible with the taxpayers’ money,” said Commissioner Tony Gurley, a Republican.

But Democratic members of the school board say the three proposals amount to a power grab by the Republican-led Board of Commissioners.

“They’re striking at the heart of the authority that has been granted to the school board by state statute,” said school board chairman Keith Sutton, a Democrat.

Legislators say they’re completing details of a bill that would allow commissioners in Wake or any county to take ownership of school facilities away from the school board. Another bill that legislators say could be introduced thisweek would change the way Wake County school board members are elected, a departure from the geographic-district plan that has been in place for more than 30 years.

But Chris Malone, the former Wake school board member and new state representative, said a majority of the working group that’s developing bills from the proposals has decided to hold off on the charter school legislation. Malone, a vice chairman of the House education committee, wouldn’t give a reason.

That change came as a surprise to charter-school backers, who have been hoping for a bill that would allow counties to help pay to build facilities for the nontraditional public schools. Charter schools are only allowed to use taxpayer dollars to lease facilities, not to pay for their construction.

“This is the one thing we’re asking for this session,” said Eddie Goodall, executive director of the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association.

Malone, a Wake Forest Republican, said the school ownership and school board election changes are moving forward.

Joe Bryan, the Republican chairman of the Wake commissioners, said he agrees with prioritizing the school ownership and school board election bills over the charter school legislation.

“They’re the most important items to focus on,” he said.

From Wake to statewide

What was initially just Wake commissioners’ request to control construction, ownership and maintenance of public schools has become a statewide fight, with interest groups weighing in pro and con.

The N.C. Association of County Commissioners wants any of the state’s boards of commissioners to be able to take control of school facilities. Meanwhile, the N.C. School Boards Association is urging all 115 school boards to pass resolutions opposing the change in school ownership.

“This is about improving education,” Bryan said. He added that if the commissioners took over the facilities, “This would allow the school board to focus on academics.”

The county has hired former Raleigh mayor Tom Fetzer to lobby legislators, for a fee of as much as $25,000. The Democratic majority on the school board responded by voting earlier this month to authorize hiring a lobbyist to oppose the changes, agreeing to spend as much as $100,000. No one has been hired yet.

“Why would we entrust the building of our schools to someone who has never done it before?” Sutton said.

Election options

Malone said legislators are still considering various options for changing the way Wake school board members are elected.

Currently, all nine school board members are elected by districts of roughly equal population. Only the people who live in a district can vote for the board seat that represents the area.

Commissioners want a bill passed that would have four Wake school board seats be elected at-large. That means candidates for those seats would have to run countywide. The boundaries of the five remaining district seats would be enlarged.

“I think it would be a good idea for the citizens of Wake County to have an opportunity to elect a majority of board members,” said state Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Cary Republican.

Malone said legislators are considering such options as having four at-large seats or having all school board seats elected at large. Another possibility is reducing the total number of school board seats to seven.

Malone also said legislators are looking at whether to take elements from a 2009 Wake school board bill introduced by Dollar. The measure died when Democrats were in charge.

The bill would have moved Wake school board elections to even-numbered years. If it’s brought back, it could result in all nine board seats’ being on the ballot in 2014.

That would mean board members elected in 2009, who would have to run for reelection this year under current law, would have their terms extended until 2014. And those elected in 2011, including most of the current Democratic majority, would have their terms cut by a year, potentially having to run for re-election in 2014 instead of serving full four-year terms.

Some of those new 2014 seats would initially only be for two-year terms as part of a way to stagger the seats.

Historically, Republicans have been more supportive than Democrats of at-large school board seats in Wake. Critics have pointed to potential issues such as the greater cost of running countywide rather than in one district.

‘A crass tactic’

Sutton, the school board chairman, was especially critical of the potential shortening of terms.

“That would pull the rug out from under the voters,” he said. “They would see it as being a crass tactic. They thought they were electing people to four-year terms.”

Republican school board member John Tedesco said he can see both the pros and cons of having at-large seats and moving elections to even-numbered years.

Tedesco said having elections in even-numbered years where presidential and congressional races are on the ballot will increase voter participation. But he said that the people who now vote in the low-turnout school board elections tend to be more knowledgeable about education issues.

Tedesco said at-large seats will give voters more say in who is elected. But he said having fewer or no district seats would make it harder for smaller communities to have their concerns heard.

“The devil is in the details,” he said.

Staff writer Martha Quillin contributed to this report.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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