Wake commissioners hope to find 'middle ground' on school construction

mquillin@newsobserver.comNovember 18, 2013 

— Wake County commissioners voted Monday to ask the county Board of Education to give commissioners more influence over the process of school design, construction and renovation.

The request came in the form of an interlocal agreement - a 9-page legal document - that its sponsor, Commissioner Tony Gurley, compared to an olive branch in the long-running tensions between the two elected boards.

“This is a peace offering,” said Gurley, who has joined other Republican commissioners in the past in saying that the Democrat-led Board of Education has not been responsible with taxpayers’ money. “This is an attempt to find a middle ground.”

Also at Monday’s meeting, the board said its formal goodbyes to County Manager David Cooke, who was attending his last meeting before he retires at the end of this month.

Deputy County Manager Joseph Durham will serve as interim manager until the county hires a replacement for Cooke, which it hopes to do by March.

Because vote to send the proposal to the school board split along party lines, the Democrats predicted it would not be well-received, but seen as another attempt to force the Board of Education to relinquish control.

“It’s dead on arrival,” predicted Democrat James West. “If we try to force feed this thing, it’s going to be dead on arrival and nobody’s going to get what they want.”

Commissioners will forward the agreement to the school board and ask that members consider it during their Dec. 17 meeting.

According to the document, the purpose of the agreement is to set out terms for when commissioners would take responsibility for school construction, which it would do when the school board asks it to.

The proposal was added last week to the agenda for Monday’s meeting. School board member Tom Benton said board members didn’t learn about it until late Friday afternoon.

Benton, who attended Monday’s commission meeting, said he would welcome a chance to talk with commissioners about ways they can work together to build schools more cheaply and efficiently. But he balked at surrendering construction authority to the county, saying commissioners have not shown they can do the job better than the school system.

“We are an elected body, and part of our responsibility is managing school building and construction,” Benton said. “That’s what the public expects us to do.”

Last summer, Republican commissioners failed to get legislative approval of a bill that would have let their board take over school construction from the Board of Education.

At an Aug. 29 meeting of the Wake County Taxpayers Association, Gurley said Republican state legislators who opposed the bill told commissioners they needed to first exhaust all their options under existing state law. If the school board objected to those efforts, Gurley said, the legislators told them they could bring the legislation back during the short session in May.

‘Monthly meetings’

Democrats on the commission said Monday they agreed that the boards must talk, especially now that voters have approved $810 million in school construction bonds and the Board of Education has launched some of the projects the bonds will fund.

“We should be having monthly meetings with them,” Caroline Sullivan suggested. “But we don’t need an interlocal agreement to do that.”

Also during Monday’s meeting, the board approved naming the new Career and Technical Education High School, scheduled to open next fall, after longtime educator and community leader Vernon Malone.

Malone was a classroom teacher and administrator who became superintendent of the Gov. Morehead School for the Blind and later served as chairman of the Wake Board of Education, presiding over the merger of the city and county schools.

County commissioners chairman Joe Bryan started off the meeting with a nearly half-hour “State of the County” address that pronounced that the county has seen modest growth and made significant progress on its stated goals.

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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