Garner Cleveland Record

Senate lets Wake commissioners take over school construction

Wake County commissioners on Wednesday neared their goal of taking possession of more than $1.8 billion in Wake school property, as the state Senate passed a bill that would strip the school board of its authority to own and build schools.

Initially a statewide bill, the measure, approved by a Republican majority with no Democrats voting yes, applies to just nine of the state’s 100 counties – including Wake – prompting charges of political payback. The Republican majority on the Wake Board of Commissioners, which has had a tense relationship with the Wake school board, controlled by Democrats, first asked for the legislation.

The bill, which now goes to the state House, allows boards of commissioners in the nine counties to take over all facets of school construction, including deciding where schools will be built and how they will be built. Commissioners would own the buildings and be in charge of maintenance and renovations, all traditionally responsibilities of school boards.

In the counties that take advantage of Senate Bill 236, the legislation would leave school boards as essentially tenants with only the ability to advise commissioners on school construction.

Now that the bill exempts most counties, it is classified as a local bill and would not need the signature of Gov. Pat McCrory to become law if it passes the House.

It could have immediate impact on Wake County, where the school board and board of commissioners are meeting Thursday as part of their efforts to get a school construction program of $900 million on the ballot this fall.

Immediate action set in Wake

“It’s my intent to implement the majority of what’s in the bill,” said Joe Bryan, chairman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners.

But the bill was sharply opposed by the Wake County school board and Democratic legislators. Sen. Dan Blue, a Raleigh Democrat, said passage of the bill will ensure the defeat of a school bond referendum in the state’s largest school district.

“You also again are contributing to the demise of one of the areas that has helped drive this state for the last decade, decade and a half, and is helping to set the tone for prosperity, economic development and job creation for the state through this century,” Blue said.

Bryan, a Republican, said Blue’s comment about the bond failing were “irresponsible.” He said the bond might be more likely to pass if commissioners are in charge of construction instead of the school board.

But Christine Kushner, vice chairwoman of the Wake school board, said the bill raises uncertainty about the success of the bond issue. She said the school board needs to retain school construction as part of its job of educating students.

“We as a school board need to stay focused on the bond and what’s best for our students and teachers,” said Kushner, a Democrat. “That’s why we’re opposed to the bill.”

The bill was passed amid heated allegations from Democratic legislators that Republicans were again trying to target the Wake school board. Senate Republicans passed a bill last month changing how and when Wake school board members are elected.

Originally, the construction bill would have affected the entire state but was revised Wednesday to affect only Beaufort, Dare, Davie, Guilford, Harnett, Iredell, Lee, Rockingham, Rowan and Wake counties. No explanation was given why only those counties were included.

The Senate Education Committee approved amendments Wednesday from Republican lawmakers to remove Iredell County and exempt the Kannapolis school system because part of the district is outside of Rowan County.

Amendments from Democrat lawmakers to pull Wake and Guilford counties from the bill were rejected.

‘Emasculates’ school boards

Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, argued that the Wake school system does an excellent job of school construction and doesn’t need to turn over the power to the commissioners. Stein noted the school district’s track record of 104 new schools and major renovations since 2001, multiple school-design awards and greater experience than the county in overseeing construction projects.

“Schools are instruments to further education,” Stein said. “The location of the school, the size of the school, what programs are at the school, what facilities are at the school, these are all educational matters. They are not construction matters.”

Stein and Sen. Martin Nesbitt, both lawyers, said in interviews the bill was probably legal, even though it only targets certain counties. Nesbitt, the Democratic Leader from Asheville, said the bill “emasculates” school boards.

During the Senate debate, Stein charged that the change to only impact nine counties shows it was targeted at Wake. “It’s not a statewide bill because y’all know it’s a bad idea, but you’re doing it in order to punish the Wake County school system simply because it has a Democratic school board,” he said. “Simply because the people of Wake County happened to choose representatives for that school system who happen to be Democrats. It is payback pure and simple.”

But Sen. Neal Hunt, a Raleigh Republican and one of the bill’s primary sponsors, denied any politics behind the bill. “The idea really is to give the school boards the option to spend the time they need on school education issues and to take advantage of the business acumen that county commissioners generally have,” Hunt said.

News researcher Brooke Cain contributed to this report.