Garner Cleveland Record

House keeps Wake school construction bill alive

House Republicans turned to their parliamentary rulebook Thursday to keep alive a bill that would allow county commissioners in Wake and several other counties to take over school construction.

On Thursday morning, the House Government Committee voted first to remove Wake from the bill, then to reject the legislation in its entirety. But on Thursday evening, the House voted to refer the bill, with Wake still included, to the House Rules Committee to keep it alive this year.

The evening vote was the culmination of efforts by the bill’s backers to preserve it and avoid having to wait until next year to bring it back up again. After the Government Committee vote, several Republican Wake commissioners huddled with House Speaker Pro Tem Paul Stam, other lawmakers and lobbyists to talk about what to do next.

“All our options are still open,” said Stam, an Apex Republican, after the evening vote.

Until then, the morning victory was cheered by Wake school board members who had argued they needed to retain control over locating, owning, building, maintaining and renovating schools.

“Of course we are pleased with the outcome of today’s vote, as we believe it is the right decision and the one that is in the best interests of students, families and taxpayers of Wake County and other communities across North Carolina,” said Keith Sutton, chairman of the school board and a Democrat.

“But at this point, as I am seeing very positive signs of improved relations with the county Board of Commissioners. Our focus right now is on the passage of the upcoming school bond referendum in October.”

Commissioners will hold a public hearing Monday before taking a final vote to put an $810 million school construction bond referendum on the Oct. 8 ballot.

Much of the focus of the bill has been around Wake County because the legislation originated from a request by the Republican-led Board of Commissioners. The Democratic-led school board opposes the changes included in Senate Bill 236.

The fight is so contentious that both Wake boards hired taxpayer-funded lobbyists to make their case in the legislature.

The bill, which was introduced by Sen. Neal Hunt, a Raleigh Republican, was originally a statewide measure before a version adopted by the Senate along party lines in May limited the impact to nine counties: Beaufort, Dare, Davie, Guilford, Harnett, Lee, Rockingham, Rowan and Wake.

The amended bill presented Thursday would have dropped Beaufort and Davie counties while adding Moore and Nash counties.

But the shakiness of the bill’s support became apparent as Rep. Rosa Gill, a Raleigh Democrat and former Wake school board chairwoman, introduced an amendment to drop Wake. It passed on a 17-10 vote with several Republicans, who make up the majority of the committee, backing Gill.

“It is more than a building that the school board maintains,” Gill said. “They maintain the educational process for our children.”

During public comment, all four Republican commissioners expressed disappointment that Wake was dropped but still urged the panel to recommend the bill.

Several commissioners and Stam pointed back to a land deal that the Wake County school board abandoned under pressure in 2007 after commissioners said the price was too high. Four years later, the school board purchased the property in Apex for about half the prior price at $4 million less.

“The reason the Wake County school system has saved money is that the county commissioners have demanded that they redo their deals,” said Wake Commissioner Paul Coble, a Republican.

Backers of the bill made a last-ditch effort in the committee to firm up Republican support

“Let’s let the education experts do education,” said Stam. “Let’s let the county commissioners build schools.”

But several Republican lawmakers joined Democrats in the Government Committee in arguing that there was no need to end the tradition of leaving school construction in the hands of school boards.

“We are going in a direction of splitting up some of the things that we ought to leave as they are,” said Rep. James Langdon, a Johnston County Republican and former county commissioner.

Rep. George Cleveland, an Onslow County Republican, echoed the sentiments of several critics of the bill who called it a “power grab.”

“We’ve got enough strife between our county commissioners and school boards,” Cleveland said. “This is a bad idea, and I would hope that you not support it.”