Tensions flare as Wake leaders discuss $810 million school bond

khui@newsobserver.comMay 16, 2013 

— Efforts to put a school construction bond referendum on the fall ballot continued Thursday, even as Wake County school board members and commissioners publicly squabbled over details of the plan.

Discussion of a $939.9 million school-construction program finished 90 minutes early in an attempt to defuse the heated exchanges. The source of the tension, officials admitted, was the state Senate’s passage Wednesday of a bill that would allow the Republican-led Wake County Board of Commissioners to take authority for school construction away from the Democratic-led school board.

“They’re asking for us to all sing ‘Kumbaya’ on a bond when there’s no plan as to who is actually going to do the construction,” school board member Jim Martin, a Democrat, said in an interview. “The public’s not going to support this.”

Both Joe Bryan, chairman of the board of commissioners, and Keith Sutton, chairman of the school board, said the boards need to put aside their differences.

“You’ve got some lingering tension over the victory we had in the Senate yesterday,” said Bryan, a Republican, in an interview. “We’ve got to come together to get a bond passed.”

But as Thursday’s discussion showed, coming together won’t be easy. The legislation that Bryan referenced requires only House approval before commissioners can strip ownership of current Wake schools, and planning for future schools, from their fellow elected officials on the Board of Education.

The dustup marked the second time in four months that a joint meeting on the bond issue ended with harsh words.

Thursday’s meeting examined the $939.9 million construction program to build 16 new schools, complete major renovations at six schools and pay for other projects. The program would add 20,185 seats to accommodate the 19,898 new students expected to arrive by 2017.

“It’s focused on what the biggest needs are and being responsive to those needs,” said Sutton, a Democrat. “We know there are needs all over the county.”

The meeting started on a cordial note as Bryan said $939.9 million seemed to be modest and reasonable, costing the average homeowner $12.14 a month in higher property taxes.

County finance staff project that it would take an $810 million bond referendum and $129.9 million in cash to cover all the projects. It would result in a 5.53 cent property tax rate increase, or $145.72 more per year on a $263,500 home.

The Athens Drive stadium

As the meeting progressed, Commissioner Paul Coble, a Republican, repeatedly questioned the school system’s priorities, including a proposal to spend nearly $5 million to upgrade the athletic stadium at Athens Drive High School in Raleigh.

“How are you going to answer the question that a football stadium is more important than additional seats?” he said.

The Athens Drive project is part of a list of $53.8 million in projects that’s separate from the $939.9 million that the school board wants to be funded from a bond issue. Most of the $53.8 million would come from school bonds that the county has sold but whose use hasn’t been finalized yet.

School board members defended the Athens Drive project as providing needed health and safety upgrades to aging athletic facilities. Athens Drive parents have been lobbying both boards to fund the long-promised renovations, going to the point of hiring a lawyer and threatening to take legal action.

“Athens Drive is reaching the point where, in order to sustain its outside athletic activities, there will need to be renovations or they’ll need to go somewhere else,” said school board member Tom Benton, a Democrat.

Coble continued to raise questions about the project list, arguing the school board hasn’t shown that it will try to get the most it can out of the bond issue.

“I don’t want us to walk away from the table all butterflies and unicorns thinking every thing is fine when I’m not sure it really is,” he said. “There’s more work to be done for us. I think we’re going to be surprised when the public says these numbers aren’t good enough.”

‘Can’t bully the public’

Martin accused Coble of making misrepresentations about the school board’s not trying to stretch the bond dollars. He cited school staff’s revision of an April list of projects to include more new schools.

Martin challenged Coble to show he’d save money, asking him if he wanted to make all schools mandatory year-round, something Martin says he doesn’t want to do.

“You can’t bully the public,” Coble responded.

Sutton adjourned the meeting at that point, but both Coble and Martin continued to express their frustrations to the media.

“The public has to have confidence that schools will be built by people who know how to build schools, not just people who know how to build prisons,” Martin said.

Coble said the boards haven’t really dug into the details of the project list, as he questioned whether the need to spend $25 million to build a new elementary school or $63 million for a new high school.

Martin also had a tense exchange with Phil Matthews, Republican vice chairman of the board of commissioners, for saying there need to be more armed police officers at schools as opposed to unarmed security guards. Martin responded that an armed officer would be as much of a “sitting duck” as an unarmed guard.

“We need to get away from the emotional idea that one armed officer would protect a campus from a shooter,” Martin said.

Despite the acrimony Thursday, both boards are moving toward getting the bond on the Oct. 8 ballot. The school board will review the project list again on Tuesday and vote June 4 to request the bond referendum.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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