House votes down bill giving ownership of Wake schools to county commissioners

tgoldsmith@newsobserver.comJuly 29, 2013 

  • Battling boards

    Wake County has two countywide elective bodies – the Board of Commissioners and the Board of Education.

    The Board of Commissioners has the last say over county finances. The school board must win approval from the Board of Commissioners for the schools budget. The boards have often clashed, but members have said they are united in efforts to support passage of a school bond referendum in October.

    The Board of Commissioners has seven members, who serve geographic districts, but are elected by voters across the county on a partisan basis. The body oversees law enforcement, tax collection, human services and other county functions. Under Chairman Joe Bryan, the panel has a 4-3 Republican majority.

    The Board of Education has nine members, each elected from one of nine geographic districts on an officially nonpartisan basis. Party politics have played an increasing role in recent years, and the board has had a majority of Democratic-backed members since 2011. Democrat Keith Sutton is chairman. Its members oversee operations of the state’s largest school district, with about 150,000 students.

A hard-fought effort to place the Wake County school board’s multi-billion-dollar real-estate portfolio under the control of Wake County commissioners was turned back by the state House in a bipartisan vote Wednesday.

Amid a tide of successful Republican efforts to change state government, the vote represented the apparent rejection of a GOP reach-down into county politics, an effort that would have changed the relationship between Wake’s two elective bodies.

House members from across the state were apparently unswayed by sponsors’ arguments — that Wake commissioners would buy land and build schools with greater professionalism than the school board, and that an upcoming Wake County school bond referendum would fare better with commissioners running the show.

Barring reconsideration of the measure, which had followed a twisted trail between chambers, it appeared unlikely to pass before the legislature adjourns, possibly later this week.

Rep. Paul Stam, the House majority leader, and other Republicans had argued that the measure would have increased voters’ willingness to support a bond issue referendum planned for the Oct. 8 ballot.

“For that bond to pass, there has to be confidence that the money will be used wisely,” said Stam, a Wake resident.

But House members – including about 20 Republicans – voted 62-54 against concurring with a Senate version of the bill, a move that would have placed the local bill directly into law.

Democrats argued that the change was unnecessary and would inject commissioners’ political views into the school construction process.

“I think it’s the right thing,” said Wake County school board chairman Keith Sutton after the vote. “I’m hoping we can put this behind us and focus on the bond.”

County commissioners chairman Joe Bryan said he will support the bond issue despite the bill’s fate, but he expressed disappointment at the vote.

“It’s obviously a bill and a strategy that I felt very strongly about from an accountability standpoint,” Bryan said after the vote. “I think it’s a loss to taxpayers, but we will do the best that we can in terms of the existing checks and balances.”

Malone cites politics

Rep. Chris Malone, a Wake Republican and a former member of the Wake school board, argued in favor of the bill not only as sound government practice, but also as a policy tool. Malone cited what he said were “political” reasons for supporting the bill, noting that it could be used to block efforts by the school board to enforce diversity through busing.

“I don’t want to go back to the days where we see hour-and-a-half long bus rides,” Malone said.

The Republican-led Wake County Board of Commissioners has favored the legislation. But chairman Bryan said the commissioners had no intention of getting into matters such as school assignment via control over real estate and construction.

The school board, with a Democratic majority, had argued for keeping school construction as a part of its overall mission of educating children.

“Our position has been that we need to maintain control,” Sutton said at the panel’s Tuesday night meeting.

Businessmen and schools

Rep. Yvonne Lewis Holley, a Wake Democrat, ridiculed the idea that businessmen represented on the board of commissioners were better qualified to take on construction tasks.

“What businessman do you know that has built a school?” Holley asked during debate.

Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, a freshman House member from North Wilkesboro, opposed the bill as too large an experiment to make, suggesting that the arrangement be tried in a smaller county first. Elmore, a teacher, was the sponsor of a different bill that had its content stripped to allow for the introduction of the bill concerning Wake County schools.

Goldsmith: 919-829-8929

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