NC Senate panel backs new Wake school construction bill

07/22/2013 12:28 PM

07/22/2013 12:29 PM

New legislation that would make the Wake County Board of Commissioners the only such body in North Carolina to take over school construction from the local school board passed a state Senate committee Thursday.

The Senate Rules Committee converted a bill originally approved by the House dealing with school funding into legislation giving Wake commissioners school construction authority. The vote comes as a different bill affecting nine counties, including Wake, has stalled in the House.

“The bill got hung up in the House, so we decided to take the other counties out and make it more simple,” said Sen. Neal Hunt, a Raleigh Republican.

Hunt said he’s confident that a Wake-only bill will be passed by the House.

House Bill 726 would more than quadruple the amount of real-estate assets the commissioners control, as well as potentially giving them authority over hundreds of millions in new construction contracts.

Hunt said that the bill would allow the school board to focus on education while the more business-minded commissioners could deal with construction.

But Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, questioned targeting only Wake.

“If it’s such a great idea, why are we not doing a statewide bill?” he said.

Senate Democratic Leader Martin Nesbitt called the bill “the singularly worst idea I’ve seen this session.” The Buncombe County legislator said that it would “neuter” the ability of school boards to develop adequate facilities

“You’re going to have county commissioners, based on their power, improving schools in their areas to the exclusion of others,” he said.

But Sen. Buck Newton, a Wilson County Republican, said it could lead to cost savings for commissioners to be in charge.

“It’s a wise bill,” he said. “It’s good financially and it’s good for education.”

The full Senate is scheduled to vote on the bill Friday. Pending approval there and in the House, the Wake-only bill would go into law since as a local bill it doesn’t require the signature of Gov. Pat McCrory.

“It was a bad idea when we first saw it,” said Sen. Dan Blue, a Raleigh Democrat. “It’s a worse idea now.”

Under the bill, the Wake commissioners would have the ability to take over locating, building, owning, maintaining and renovating schools. The commissioners would be required to consult with the school board. But commissioners would have final say over issues that have historically been under the control of the school board.

The bill comes as Wake County voters will vote Oct. 8 on an $810 million school construction bond referendum.

“This has assured that no bond issue will pass in Wake County in the near future,” Blue said.

Hunt responded that Wake commissioners have told him that the bond might not pass unless they’re in charge of construction.

Backers of the Republican-led commissioners and the Democratic-led school board each insist their side would do the best job of overseeing school construction

Commissioners have said the county can build the schools cheaper while school board members have said only the district has the experience in overseeing so many construction projects.

Wake commissioners have long sought control over school construction with Hunt introducing Senate Bill 236 in March. The bill was originally a statewide measure, but the version approved by the Senate in May included only nine of the state’s 100 counties.

But the House Rules Committee rejected Hunt’s bill last week. Several Republican legislators sided with Democrats in saying the bill was not needed. The bill was re-referred to the House Rules Committee.

Hunt said it would be better for counties to have their own bills if they want construction authority.

“It seemed appropriate to let each county stand on its own,” he said.

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