Leave Wake County school board alone, bill opponents say

ccampbell@newsobserver.comMarch 26, 2013 

— Opponents of efforts to weaken the power of the Wake County school board had a simple message for legislators Monday: Leave the district alone.

Nearly half of the speakers at the Wake County legislative delegation’s hearing were there to protest the bills, both sponsored by Republican Sen. Neal Hunt of Raleigh at the request of county commissioners. One would allow all 100 county governments to control ownership, construction and maintenance of schools, taking that power away from school systems. Hunt has argued the bill would allow the school systems to focus on education instead of on construction issues.

The second bill would allow Wake County voters to cast ballots for two district school board seats – instead of one – by creating two regional districts that each represent half the county. It also calls for legislators to redraw the boundaries of the other districts, extends the terms of mostly Republican board members and shortens the terms of five Democratic board members – all part of a plan to move the elections to even-numbered years.

No one spoke in favor of the measures Monday.

Earl Johnson – pastor of Martin Street Baptist Church and leader of the Raleigh Wake Citizens Association – said construction is best left to the school system. And he says his group won’t support a bond referendum for new school construction, planned for this fall, if the bill passes.

“My fear is that shifting this power would be a colossal failure as the commissioners do not have the experience ... to take on what the school board should be doing,” he said.

The proposed changes also drew fire from several former school board members, including John Gilbert, who served on the board for 16 years. He said the change in elections would further exacerbate party-line divisions on the officially nonpartisan board.

“Both these bills are transparently partisan,” Gilbert said. “There was never a single vote taken by the board until after the 2009 election in which the board split along partisan lines – not one.”

Others took aim at the proposed new district lines, which they say is an example of gerrymandering. “It would also pit an inside-the-Beltline district against the suburbs,” Cary parent Amy Womble said.

Hunt has said the districts were redrawn to make them more competitive. And he argues that the regional districts should ensure that families will be able to elect at least one board member for the area where their children attend school.

But opponents said the bills are merely a power grab. “I believe the dismissal of Superintendent Tony Tata was (Republicans’) final straw, and now they want retribution,” said Raleigh resident John Reeder.

Campbell: 919-829-4802 or twitter.com/RaleighReporter

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