The fight over who should build and own schools in Wake County went statewide Thursday with the introduction of a bill that would allow all 100 county governments to take control of school properties.
The bill would allow individual county boards of commissioners to take away from school boards their traditional responsibility for owning, siting, acquiring, constructing, maintaining and renovating schools. In counties that follow the provisions of the bill, commissioners would consult with the county school board, but would not be required to agree to their requests.
“The school districts should be focused on education and not acquisition of real estate,” said state Sen. Neal Hunt, a Raleigh Republican and one of the bill’s primary sponsors. “In high-growth counties, they’re spending. a lot of time on construction. They need to focus on teaching the students.”
While the bill is backed by the Wake County Board of Commissioners and the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, it’s opposed by the Wake County school board and the N.C. School Boards Association. The bill was introduced three days after Wake school board members urged members of the Wake legislative delegation not to support the legislation.
“We’re going to work very hard to do what we feel is in the best interests of the students and families of Wake County,” said Wake school board Chairman Keith Sutton, a Democrat, on Thursday.
But even critics of the legislation concede it’s likely to pass the Republican-led state legislature. The bill’s two other primary sponsors are powerful legislators – Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican and chairman of the Rules Committee, and Sen. Peter Brunstetter, a Winston-Salem Republican and co-chairman of the Budget Committee.
Hunt said he expects high-growth counties to take advantage of the legislation, while most counties will leave things the way they are.
For more than a decade, Wake commissioners have been pressing to take over ownership of school facilities. They’ve argued that they should own, build and maintain the schools they fund.
Republican commissioners also say that a school construction bond measure that could appear on the ballot Oct. 8 is more likely to pass if they own the schools.
In January, the Republican majority of the commissioners agreed to put the school ownership bill on their legislative agenda.
“It’s just better government in my opinion,” said Joe Bryan, Republican chairman of the Wake Board of Commissioners, on Thursday. “It makes no difference to me whether the school board is Republican or Democrat. It’s just a better government structure to link the asset with the liability.”
But the majority Democrats on the Wake County school board say they’ve done a good job of building and maintaining schools. School board Vice Chairwoman Christine Kushner, a Democrat, pointed to the various design awards the school district has won and the volume of schools it has built over the years.
“I haven’t seen any compelling argument as to why this change should be implemented,” Kushner said. “To me, it’s not sound policy.”
Both Wake boards are using taxpayer dollars to pay lobbyists to try to influence legislators.
If the legislation passes, the school board still would have the responsibility of determining what schools are needed and where they should be built, Bryan said.
“Once it’s settled,” he said, “it will create stronger partnerships between county commissions and school systems” that choose the option.
But under the bill, commissioners don’t have to build where a school board wants. The bill only says “the county shall consult the board of education in the siting” of schools.
‘A family squabble’
Despite the fighting between both Wake boards, David McLennan, a political science professor at William Peace University, said the average taxpayer won’t be affected by the change as long as commissioners still provide enough funding for school construction. “The average citizen sees this as a family squabble,” he said.
Wake commissioners also are asking for changes in state law that would allow them to help fund construction of charter schools and to make countywide at-large positions out of four of the nine school board seats. Bills with those provisions haven’t been introduced yet.
Staff writer Martha Quillin contributed to this report.