Reason prevails on Wake school construction

July 25, 2013 

Anyone who attended one of the occasional joint meetings between Wake County school board members, with Democrats in the majority, and county commissioners, with Republicans in control, could have at times mistaken those visits for a stroll through the hills of West Virginia and Kentucky while dodging crossfire from the Hatfields and McCoys. Good grief.

Commissioner Paul Coble was Paw Hatfield, wielding sharp wit intended to draw blood from school board members. His fellow Republican, Chairman Joe Bryan, was the friendly mediator, but at meeting’s end he was staunchly with Coble and other Republicans.

The issue in the unpleasant standoff was a proposal from commissioners to take over the land purchasing and building of schools from the school board. The GOP commissioners were supremely confident they’d get what they wanted, given the Republican majorities in the state House and Senate.

But on Wednesday, the House rejected going along with a bill passed by the Senate to give commissioners their win. The opposition was bipartisan, and came as a happy shock to the school board majority.

It took a bit of the sting, a bit, out of the earlier passage of a preposterous interference from the legislature in the redrawing of school board district lines to intentionally give Republicans an edge in elections in 2016, to “take back” the board they ruled and roiled from 2009-2011.

Revenge, politics

The confrontations over these issues was prompted by partisan politics and nothing more.

Republican commissioners resented that the Democratic majority fired a superintendent, Tony Tata, hired by a former Republican majority that presided over two chaotic and divisive years. They wanted to take their revenge by taking control of property from the school board to give them more control over the school system.

Their argument was that they, commissioners, could better manage the school system’s property than the school system could. But commissioners, other than vague reasoning about how they’d be more effective managers, produced no good reasons for the change.

And by the way, commissioners approve the school budget, so they in effect have a lot of input into the school system.

If there was any doubt as to the commissioners’ motivation, former Wake school board member Chris Malone, one of the members of that 2009 Republican school board majority and now a state House member, cleared it up in one of the more revealing and zany moments of discussion on the proposal.

Malone said there were “political” reasons for his House colleagues to back this bill, noting that it could be helpful in blocking efforts by the school board to enforce economic diversity through busing.

An oops moment

In other words, Malone was saying, commissioners could hold this power over land and buildings over school board members when it came to making school policy. For all the repugnant logic in his argument, at least the guy was honest. (Commissioners and other Republicans in the House probably would have preferred if Malone had stayed silent.)

Who knows why common sense prevailed in the House and not in the Senate. Could it be that House members are weary of the embarrassing ideological tangents of their fellow Republicans in the Senate? Did they hear from school boards throughout the state and...gasp...listen?

Commissioners and school board members spent too much time and too much money fighting each other, when they ought to have had a cooperative relationship. Republican lobbyists Tom Fetzer and Theresa Kostrzewa represented the commissioners and the school board respectively. Fetzer’s fee was $5,000 a month up to $25,000 and Kostrzewa’s was $35,000. Fetzer is a former Raleigh mayor and state Republican chairman with allies on the board of commissioners.

Now a more serious question, one demanding unity, will come before voters, and there could be some troubling consequences from this battle. An $810 million school bond is go before voters in October, and to pass, it will need the unified support of all commissioners and all school board members.

So, having lost the fight over property, will GOP commissioners still step out front for the bond issue? Bryan says yes. But he and his mates on the board need to be prominent and enthusiastic in their support. Only that kind of strong effort will get the bond passed. And not passing it would hurt the party that should really matter in school debates – the children.

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