Wake County leaders agree on school construction deal

khui@newsobserver.comFebruary 27, 2014 

  • Next steps

    The school board is scheduled to vote on the agreement Tuesday. The Board of Commissioners is scheduled to take it up March 17.

    As part of the approval, both boards will write letters asking legislators not to approve House Bill 726, which would give Wake commissioners control over school construction, when the General Assembly holds the short session starting in May.

— Wake County commissioners will give up their efforts to take over control of school construction as part of an agreement Thursday to work more closely with the school board on how schools are located and built.

Under the deal reached Thursday by the leaders of both boards, the school board will retain authority over school construction but will involve the Board of Commissioners more in the planning process. In addition, the leaders agreed that they’ll ask state legislators not to act on a pending bill that would have turned over school construction authority in Wake to the Board of Commissioners.

“This is a good day for Wake County,” school board member Keith Sutton said.

The agreement appears to resolve a more than decadelong dispute between Wake County’s two ruling boards over who will have the last say on planning and building schools. It comes as the school system works through finding building sites and planning the construction and renovations to be funded by the $810 million school-construction bond issue approved by voters in October.

The school board is scheduled to vote on the agreement Tuesday. The Board of Commissioners is scheduled to take it up March 17.

The commissioners turned to the General Assembly for help last year to take control of school construction. School leaders have insisted that the district had the expertise needed to build schools.

A bill giving Wake County commissioners control over school construction passed the state Senate but was rejected by the House in July. It’s eligible for reconsideration when the General Assembly reconvenes in May.

Both the Republican-led commissioners and Democratic-led school board had hired lobbyists last year to oppose each other on the bill. But leaders of both boards said the letters they’ll write to legislators after the agreement is approved should cause them to drop any action on the bill.

‘Good faith effort’

The agreement has wording saying it “reflects a good faith effort to resolve past issues and conflicts amicably and locally.” It also says neither side will be “taking any measures to alter the respective legal rights and duties of either party.”

“We’ve resolved it locally,” said school board Chairwoman Christine Kushner. “It’s an important show of good faith. I don’t know how anyone can ignore that.”

Tony Gurley, vice chairman of the Board of Commissioners, said it wouldn’t make sense for the General Assembly to pass the school construction bill this year because members won’t have had the time to see how the agreement has turned out. He said that after a few years, commissioners will be able to see whether they should return to the legislature to ask for the construction authority.

The agreement allows either side to back out after giving 30 days’ notice.

Under the agreement, the commissioners and school board will form a “joint school facilities core team” consisting of school and county staff members. The team will develop a process for how both boards can work together on the research, investigation and evaluation of acquiring school sites, and designing and construction of schools.

The agreement also says the team will regularly keep both boards informed on construction issues. One of the complaints from commissioners is that they don’t get information soon enough on construction projects, resulting in them voting to delay or reject items.

“It will give you, the school board, some assurance that you won’t be surprised if we turn down something,” Gurley said.

The agreement also includes wording saying the school board can choose to turn over authority for individual construction projects to the Board of Commissioners.

Both panels portrayed the agreement as a victory for their sides.

“Yes, the school board retains the authority to build and renovate schools,” Gurley said. “But we will get information sooner. It’s a good compromise.”

Gurley, who first proposed the agreement in November, said he didn’t think it would have been approved if not for the threat of the legislation.

But Kushner stressed that the agreement maintains the current system in which school boards have control over school construction, but have to request funding from the Board of Commissioners.

“I think the legislation was just one-sided,” Kushner said. “We believe in checks and balances, and I believe this agreement respects that.”

Gurley said the agreement “benefits the taxpayers of Wake County.” But Ed Jones, chairman of the Wake County Taxpayers Association, wasn’t so sure. Jones said he was disappointed that the commissioners are giving up on seeking control over school construction.

“I still feel strongly that the county and the county commissioners have more ability to work with the building of schools,” Jones said.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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