A destructive confrontation between the Wake County school board and commissioners

February 21, 2013 

Wake County public education officials presented on Thursday, in a joint meeting between school board members and commissioners, a coherent, compelling explanation of school building needs that could be answered with a bond issue of $1.4 billion to $1.7 billion, approval of which would be sought this fall from voters.

And then a playground fight commenced.

Yes, the ugly confrontation between commissioners and school board members continues. Commissioner Caroline Sullivan, a Democrat new to the board, may have hit on the most appropriate comparison when, during a contentious discussion between the two groups, she said, “I live with two middle schoolers, and sometimes I have to go upstairs and it doesn’t matter who started the fight. Someone has to end it.”

Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight for a dispute commissioners escalated. The commissioners guaranteed a face-off when they asked the state legislature to approve major changes affecting the school board. The commissioners are seeking control of building and owning school buildings, permission to grant money to charter schools for construction and a change in the school board election structure that would replace the current all-district system with one that includes at-large seats.

Their motivation is no mystery. Republicans hold a majority on the commission, and the GOP also controls the General Assembly. The commissioners’ majority members know the chance for getting what they want is good.

But, why?

And why do they want it? The first answer is, for no good reason. Republican commissioners resent the fact that Democrats regained control of the school board in 2011 after a cantankerous and destructive two years of Republican rule. When voters banished the Republicans from power, the new board fired Superintendent Tony Tata, who’d been hired by Republicans, but was said by the Democrats to be uncooperative. (Tata’s back in government as the secretary of the state Department of Transportation under Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.) That angered then-commissioners Chairman Paul Coble. And it ramped up tensions between the boards.

The moves with the General Assembly represent what school board Chairman Keith Sutton calls a power grab. They’re also a revenge slap. The election proposal is the most blatant example of that. With four at-large seats established, deep-pocket Republicans could pour money into the countywide races and win those seats, invest in a couple of district races and regain control of the school board.

The issue on the buildings is a non-issue. Commissioners continue to cite one example of a case in which the school system was prepared to pay an exorbitant sum for property for schools which commissioners stopped. Fine. But other examples of such gaffes are few. The school system, and the school board, have managed property purchases well for years.

Duly elected

Commissioners seem to be conveniently forgetting a significant fact here. Republican commissioners may resent the Democrats who run the school board, but they were chosen in elections every bit as credible as the ones that have put Republicans in charge of the commissioners’ board.

The schools need a bond issue. Commissioners’ Chairman Joe Bryan said early on in the Thursday joint meeting that his top priority was a successful bond referendum. But then commissioners and school board members locked horns on a number of issues. At times, it seemed the combatants were in school themselves, as when Commissioner Tony Gurley complained that school board member Susan Evans called him a “jerk.”

It may be that some school board members have contributed to the personality conflicts between the two boards, but in pushing a legislative agenda, commissioners took the disputes to a new and destructive level. Bryan, who has been a reasonable and sometimes conciliatory voice among Republicans, needs to assume that role again, as difficult as it may be. As Sullivan said, someone has to end this.

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