Wake commissioners' bid for school ownership heads to legislature

relder@newsobserver.comFebruary 25, 2013 

A push by the Wake County Board of Commissioners to take over school ownership and construction from the county school board will make its way to the state Capitol on Monday when county representatives meet with potential sponsors, including state Rep. Paul “Skip” Stam.

Stam said Sunday his staff is drafting a bill giving the commissioners control over land purchases, building projects and upkeep of school facilities, which are now among the explicit duties of the school board.

Wake school board members, with a Democratic majority, oppose the move. In a letter to both boards dated Friday, school board member and former board chairman Kevin Hill said commissioners’ claims about mismanagement of school properties are inaccurate and unproven.

“We’ve built 40-plus schools since the year 2000, and we’ve done a good job,” Hill said in the letter.

But members of the Republican-controlled General Assembly have said they are willing to make the changes, perhaps on a statewide basis.

“I heard about the issue and asked my staff two months ago to begin drafting some legislation,” Stam, a Republican from Apex, said Sunday. “I can’t tell you exactly what it’s going to say, because I haven’t seen it yet.”

Stam and other members of the Wake County legislative delegation will hold their annual meeting Monday to allow county and municipal government officials to air their priorities for the legislative session. School officials will be invited to do the same in about a week, said state Rep. Deborah Ross of Raleigh.

Tony Gurley, one of the four-member Republican majority on the Board of Commissioners, said the change in law is needed to help reign in spending by the Wake County school board, which has a budget of more than $80 million annually for construction and maintenance.

“The way it is now, we agree on a dollar amount in June and then have no control over how they use the money,” Gurley said. “They tell us they are doing one thing, but use it for something different. They are just irresponsible with the way they handle taxpayers’ money.”

Gurley has cited as an example of wasteful spending a case in which the school board was prepared to pay $8 million for a school site that was ultimately purchased by the county for $4 million. He also complained Sunday that the school board failed to “give back” another $8 million allocated but not used for workman’s compensation claims in a previous year’s budget.

School board member Hill strongly objected to Gurley’s claims of fiscal mismanagement: “If they have an envelope full of bad examples, I wish they’d show them to us.”

Hill also challenged Commissioner Paul Coble’s characterization of the school board as unwilling to work with county leaders. In a letter addressed to Commission Chairman Joe Bryan and sent Friday to all commissioners and school board members, Hill said Coble “misstated” facts during a joint meeting last Thursday between the two public bodies.

“The Board of Education is being inaccurately portrayed as unwilling to enter into discussions seeking better ways to meet the needs of our children,” Hill wrote.

He cited efforts to comply with demands for information from county commissioners dating back to 2008.

“The Board of Education is more than willing to sit with the County Commissioners and look for ways to maximize savings for the citizens of Wake County,” Hill wrote, adding that giving county commissioners control over school facilities goes against “a vital system of ‘checks and balances’ built into the General Statute over 30 years ago.”

Neither Coble nor Bryan return calls Sunday seeking comment.

Commissioner Betty Lou Ward, a Democrat, called the commission “really divided.”

Ward said the Republican majority favors requiring school board members to run at-large, rather than from districts as they do now, along with changing jurisdiction over school facilities.

“I don’t think this move is reasonable, especially because it wasn’t discussed with the school board ahead of time,” she added. “As a result, the school board members have been upset and angry, and that’s a bad way to operate.”

The rift between the two boards comes at a time when the county needs a bond issue to renovate or construct school facilities to accommodate the 13,000 new students projected to enroll by 2016.

The bond proposal is set to go before voters in October, but details, including the amount of the bond request, have not been ironed out. June is the deadline for having a proposal ready for October’s ballot.

It will be the first time a bond issue has been proposed by the school system since 2006, when a $970 million bond issue for school improvements was approved by voters.

Ward said she fears that Wake County’s education system will lose their longtime reputation for excellence if the partisan debate over control of the school system continues unresolved.

“I was in the doctor’s office recently and a nurse with two preschool-age children said she was worried about sending her children to Wake County schools,” she said.

“It seems that seeds of doubt are being planted.”

Elder: 919-829-4528

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