RALEIGH — Wake County’s top elected leaders agree on this: A school construction bond referendum is definitely needed.
But with school board members and county commissioners fighting – often heatedly – over who should control school ownership, it’s not clear whether this is the best time to ask voters to approve borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars.
“Right now, the community is seeing this as a bunch of adults acting like children fighting over turf and power,” new school board member Tom Benton, a Democrat, said Thursday. “Somehow we’ve got to change that.”
Thursday’s meeting at the headquarters of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce marked the first time the boards have met together since commissioners asked last month for a change in state law that would let them take control of school facilities away from the school board. The official purpose of Thursday’s session was to work on a school construction bond scheduled for this fall, but the fight over school ownership hung over the entire meeting.
“The only real scientific poll that’s going to be taken is on Election Day” when voters consider the school bond, said Commissioner Paul Coble, a Republican. “And what I’m telling you is you’re going to lose that one if it continues to go like it is.”
School administrators on Thursday laid out more than $1 billion in needs to help Wake renovate older schools and to keep up with 13,500 new students expected to come by 2016.
But several school board members said the acrimony between the boards is one reason why an Oct. 8 bond vote might be too soon.
“We’re committed to a successful bond referendum,” said school board Chairman Keith Sutton, a Democrat. “What I think you’re hearing is concern not about the need, or the question about the number, but where the community is and the confidence it has in both boards to get it done.”
School board members floated the idea of postponing a bond issue to 2014.
“Is it harder to sell this thing now on the tail end of the recession than maybe next year?” asked board member John Tedesco, a Republican.
Board member Susan Evans, a Democrat, said the county’s school construction needs have to be weighed against the consequences of the bond being rejected by voters.
“I want us to think cautiously as to whether this fall is the right time or taking a little more time and doing it the next year is the better thing,” Evans said. “The most important thing is that it’s successful.”
The commissioners were the one group adamant Thursday about going ahead with the bond this year.
“There can’t be any doubt that we’re long overdue to have a successful bond issue,” said Joe Bryan, the Republican chairman of the board of commissioners. “I don’t see how we can wait.”
Wake voters last approved a school bond issue in 2006 – a record $970 million in bonds.
County Manager David Cooke said both boards need to agree on a bond amount no later than June to be able to meet the legal requirements for an Oct. 8 bond referendum.
The legislative squabble
Relations between the two boards have been strained for more than a year. Things grew more heated Jan. 22 when the Republican majority on the commissioners requested a change in state law that would give commissioners authority to own, build and maintain schools.
Additionally, commissioners asked for changes in state laws that would let them fund construction of charter schools and that would require that four of the nine Wake school board seats be elected at-large on a countywide basis.
The Democratic majority on the school board voted to hire a lobbyist to fight the legislative changes, and it passed a resolution opposing turning school construction over to county commissioners.
County taxpayers are on the hook for $60,000 for the lobbyists both bodies are using to make their arguments to state legislators. The school board is paying Theresa Kostrzewa $35,000, and the commissioners are paying $25,000 to former Raleigh mayor Tom Fetzer.
Sutton said at Thursday’s joint meeting that both sides needed to air out their issues. The resulting discussion was tense.
Evans said commissioners “disrespected” school board members by not talking to them before asking state legislators to make the changes.
“We have to convince this public that we are in this together, and we want this and believe in this,” Evans said. “I feel like we as a Board of Education have to have partners in the Board of Commissioners that we can trust in this effort, and right now my trust is running a little low.”
Whom does public trust?
School board member Jim Martin, a Democrat, charged that commissioners had put the bond issue in “jeopardy” with their actions. He argued that commissioners haven’t proved that they can save money by taking over school construction.
“You do not yet have my support for supporting your bond,” Martin said to commissioners.
But Republican commissioners said they think the public trusts them more than the school board. They said a bond issue is more likely to pass if commissioners are in charge of school construction.
Coble brought up the school board’s firing of Superintendent Tony Tata, now the state transportation secretary, and the board’s dropping of the choice-based student assignment plan.
“With the damage you’ve done to yourselves in the last year or so, you need to be able to make a good argument why this bond ought to pass,” Coble said.
Bryan said that because commissioners are responsible for voting on tax increases to pay for school construction, he also wants a say in building schools. He also noted that the idea of county ownership of schools has been discussed for more than a decade.
Sutton, who said the school system has shown it’s doing a good job of building schools, has called the commissioners’ action a “power grab.” But Bryan said the school board hasn’t shown to him why it would be bad for commissioners to be in change of owning and building schools.
Amid Thursday’s raised voices, the discussion got personal.
“I am getting sick and tired of having this person whispering words like calling me a jerk into my ear as I’m trying to speak,” Republican County Commissioner Tony Gurley said to Evans.
“I didn’t say that,” Evans responded. “You told me tough luck or something else.”
“It’s a sad day when we’ve gotten to the point where we seem to enjoy not working with each other,” said Commissioner James West, a Democrat.