Wake County voters could soon find out whether there will be a new boss overseeing all the projects that would be funded from this fall’s $810 million school construction bond referendum.
The Wake County Board of Commissioners will hold a public hearing Monday before voting to put the bond referendum on the Oct. 8 ballot. However, the issue of whether the school board will continue to oversee school construction or whether oversight will shift to the commissioners – as it would under proposed legislation before the General Assembly – has yet to be resolved.
A state House committee rejected Thursday legislation that would let county commissioners in Wake and several other counties take control of school construction away from school boards. But in a parliamentary move, the full House referred Senate Bill 236 to a different committee that’s expected to take it up this week.
Backers of the Republican-led commissioners and the Democratic-led school board each insist their side would do the best job of overseeing school construction and warn that the alternative would hurt the bond’s chances of passing. The controversy adds another challenge that bond supporters will have to work through over the next three months.
“Regardless of who has the responsibility for constructing the schools, it’s not going to affect the requirement that the county has,” said Harvey Schmitt, president of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, which doesn’t support the school construction bill. “They still need to be built.”
The Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce is taking up its traditional role of organizing the efforts to get a school bond passed.
They’ll try to market a bond that would finance the bulk of a $939.9 million construction program to build 16 new schools, perform major renovations at six schools and cover other projects. It would help cope with the 3,000 new students coming into the state’s largest school district annually.
Passage of the bond comes with a 5.53-cent property tax-rate increase. For the average Wake County home assessed at $263,500, that works out to an annual tax increase of $145.72.
Faced with convincing voters to support a tax hike, the Republican majority on the Board of Commissioners, which requested the legislation, say the public will trust them more than the school board to spend the bond money.
“I know there’s a lot of people who will support this only if the county commissioners take charge of school construction,” said Commissioner Tony Gurley, a Republican.
But school board members are just as adamant that taking away their traditional control over school construction puts the bond at risk of rejection.
“The actions being taken by the county and the legislature are endangering the very thing that’s crucial to Wake County,” said school board member Jim Martin, a Democrat. “I don’t find that’s wise.”
Under the legislation, which was passed by the Senate in May, the commissioners in Wake and eight other counties would be able to take over locating, building, owning, maintaining and renovating schools.
Commissioners would be required to consult with the school board on school facility needs. But the final decision would rest with the commissioners.
Joe Bryan, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, said he would move rapidly to put the bill’s provisions into effect once it becomes law. Bryan, a Republican, said he would initiate meetings with school leaders on a “friendly merger” of facilities departments.
Commissioners have insisted that they can do the construction projects less expensively than the school system. They’ve publicly questioned school system projections such as spending an estimated $63 million to build a high school.
“We will be less likely to be frivolous spending money,” Gurley said. “We will be better guardians and more responsible to the taxpayers. The people who are elected to raise the tax money should also be responsible for spending the tax money.”
Gurley said commissioners will stretch the bond money to build even more than the items the school system plans.
But Martin said that the commissioners have failed to lay out the means with which they will save money by taking over school construction. Martin questions what cuts would come from commissioners, saying it could impact the educational program.
“You could build a cheap building to warehouse the kids,” he said. “That’s not what I hear the families in Wake County want.”
School leaders have insisted that they, and not the county, have the track record and expertise to handle so many building projects. They point to the district’s record of handling $2.2 billion in construction projects since 2001, completing 42 new schools and 62 major renovations, while winning numerous design awards.
The school system also says it’s saved $104 million from the last construction program to put toward other projects.
But commissioners charge that the savings came from their challenges of the school system’s costs.
Commissioners have repeatedly pointed to their questioning of the $8.7 million the school board planned to pay in 2007 to buy land for a school in Apex. In response, the school board abandoned the deal and commissioners put new requirements in place for land purchases. The school board wound up purchasing the property for $4 million less in 2011.
Some school board supporters, including the Rev. Earl Johnson, president of the Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association, say they will fight the bond if the commissioners take over school construction. Johnson, who heads a group that has represented Raleigh’s African-American community since 1932, charges the bill is a “politically motivated” attack by Republicans to take power away from the school board’s Democratic majority.
“We will continue to fight against any school construction bonds as long as they are in the hands of county commissioners,” Johnson said. “We’ll do everything within our power to prevent the passage of a school construction bond.”
But other opponents of the construction bill say rejecting the bond because the commissioners would be in charge would be a mistake.
“It’s not going to be teaching anybody a lesson by voting it down,” said Larry Nilles, president of the Wake County chapter of the N.C. Association of Educators. “The kids are the ones who are going to be the losers.”
Both Bryan and Keith Sutton, the chairman of the school board, are also telling people to support the bond no matter who is in charge of construction.
Bryan said he’s “really proud of the public” that 54 percent of the respondents in a recent Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce poll said they’d vote yes on the bond. Bryan said he expect Monday’s vote on the bond to be unanimous.
“The bond is needed regardless of the outcome of the school construction bill,” said Sutton, a Democrat. “Whether the bill passes or not does not change our plans for the school bond.”