Squabble may delay opening of 4 new Wake schools

khui@newsobserver.comJanuary 10, 2014 

The opening of four new Wake County schools and the development of a new student assignment plan are in limbo because of the latest battle for control over school construction.

This week, the Republican-led Wake County Board of Commissioners rejected giving money to design three new schools and tabled a vote on design dollars for a fourth school. Commissioners have long pressed for more control over school construction and say they want proof that the Democratic-led school board is building schools in the most cost-effective way possible.

“We are simply fulfilling our obligation, our responsibilities to the taxpayers of Wake County to monitor the spending of money for school facilities,” said commissioners Vice Chairman Tony Gurley, a Republican.

But school leaders warn that the commissioners are putting in danger their efforts to open on time the new schools that were part of an $810 million school construction bond issue approved by voters in October.

School board members say they’re uncertain of what specifically the commissioners want from them.

“We’ve got deadlines we have to meet,” said school board Chairwoman Christine Kushner, a Democrat. “We put these schools before the voters. We’ve got to get to work.”

It doesn’t look as though the dispute will be resolved anytime soon. The leaders of both boards will meet Jan. 22.

Commissioners Chairman Phil Matthews, a Republican, said he had hoped for the leaders to meet this week and for the two boards to gather later this month to speed along the process of approving school construction and renovation projects. But now February is likely the earliest the groups will be able to meet.

County commissioners, Matthews said, are “made out to be the bad guys,” the ones standing in the way of progress.

“But it appears nobody is in a hurry over there,” he said.

A temporary truce

Both boards have been feuding since Democrats retook the majority on the school board in fall 2011. The two sides temporarily put aside their differences to get the school bonds passed last fall. But once that took place, the fighting resumed.

One of the points of contention is that commissioners unsuccessfully lobbied the General Assembly last year for a state law that would shift authority for school construction from the school board to the county commissioners.

In November, Gurley got his fellow GOP commissioners to approve an interlocal agreement that formally asked the school board to spell out circumstances under which it might ask commissioners to take responsibility for school construction. Kushner said the school board still needs to review the proposal.

Four schools’ fates

The latest dispute emerged from this week’s request for nearly $3 million to design three elementary schools – two in Cary and one in Holly Springs – as well as a middle school in northeast Raleigh.

Commissioners questioned why the school system wanted to use new designs for all four schools instead of reusing existing prototypes.

“If we’ve had great architects who’ve built great schools, we ought to continue to use them instead of finding new architects to build new designs,” said Commissioner Paul Coble, a Republican.

Joe Desormeaux, the school system’s assistant superintendent for facilities, told Coble that the designs they solicited were of lower cost but still of a high quality.

“Sometimes it helps to go out and look again and see if somebody else has a better product out there,” he said. “Basically that’s what we’ve done here.”

The commissioners’ vote to reject the design money went 4-3 along party lines.

“We’re just causing a bottleneck to me that makes no sense,” said Commissioner James West, a Democrat.

But Coble said commissioners need to make a firm statement now to school board members about wanting to see their plans for saving money.

“My frustration in this is if we don’t understand the process now when we’re first starting out with design, then we’re never going to find the opportunity to save money,” he said.

‘Month of wiggle room’

Desormeaux laid out to school board members Tuesday the consequences of not having the funding. He said that they can probably absorb a one-month delay and still open on schedule, which would be 2016 for the three elementary schools and 2017 for the middle school.

But Desormeaux said that if the delay reaches two or more months, the school system will have to consider things such as paying more money to expedite the work. Even then, he said, it begins to put the schedules for the schools, particularly the elementary schools, in doubt.

“We’ve got a month of wiggle room,” said school board Vice Chairman Tom Benton, a Democrat.

School board member Bill Fletcher, the board’s lone Republican, noted that school assignment staff members are working on a new three-year student assignment plan that’s tied to the opening of the new schools. He said delays mean that “total plan goes down the drain.”

“Ultimately the (commissioners’) approval is a critical process, a critical part of being able to serve the 20,000 new kids that are coming to us over the next five years,” Fletcher said. “Hopefully they will see the necessity of moving forward with some pace.”

Staff writer Martha Quillin contributed to this report.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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