A hard-fought effort to place the Wake County school board’s multibillion-dollar real-estate portfolio under the control of Wake County commissioners was turned back by the state House in a bipartisan vote Wednesday.
Amid a tide of successful Republican efforts to change state government, the vote represented the apparent rejection of a GOP reach-down into county politics, an effort that would have changed the relationship between Wake’s two elective bodies.
House members from across the state were apparently unswayed by sponsors’ arguments – that Wake commissioners would buy land and build schools with greater professionalism than the school board, and that an upcoming Wake County school bond referendum would fare better with commissioners running the show.
Barring reconsideration of the measure, which had followed a twisted trail between chambers, it appeared unlikely to pass before the legislature adjourns, possibly later this week.
Rep. Paul Stam, the House majority leader, and other Republicans had argued that the measure would have increased voters’ willingness to support a bond issue referendum planned for the Oct. 8 ballot.
“For that bond to pass, there has to be confidence that the money will be used wisely,” said Stam, a Wake resident.
But House members – including about 20 Republicans – voted 62-54 against concurring with a Senate version of the bill, a move that would have placed the local bill directly into law.
Democrats argued that the change was unnecessary and would inject commissioners’ political views into the school construction process.
“I think it’s the right thing,” Wake County school board Chairman Keith Sutton said after the vote. “I’m hoping we can put this behind us and focus on the bond.”
County commissioners Chairman Joe Bryan said he will support the bond issue despite the bill’s fate, but he expressed disappointment at the vote.
“It’s obviously a bill and a strategy that I felt very strongly about from an accountability standpoint,” Bryan said after the vote. “I think it’s a loss to taxpayers, but we will do the best that we can in terms of the existing checks and balances.”
Malone cites politics
Rep. Chris Malone, a Wake Republican and a former member of the Wake school board, argued in favor of the bill not only as sound government practice, but also as a policy tool. Malone cited what he said were “political” reasons for supporting the bill, noting that it could be used to block efforts by the school board to enforce diversity through busing.
“I don’t want to go back to the days where we see hour-and-a-half long bus rides,” Malone said.
The Republican-led Wake County Board of Commissioners has favored the legislation. But Bryan said the commissioners had no intention of getting into matters such as school assignment via control over real estate and construction.
The school board, with a Democratic majority, had argued for keeping school construction as a part of its overall mission of educating children.
“Our position has been that we need to maintain control,” Sutton said at the panel’s Tuesday night meeting.
Businessmen and schools
Rep. Yvonne Lewis Holley, a Wake Democrat, ridiculed the idea that businessmen represented on the Board of Commissioners were better qualified to take on construction tasks.
“What businessman do you know that has built a school?” Holley asked during debate.
Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, a freshman House member from North Wilkesboro, opposed the bill as too large an experiment to undertake, suggesting that the arrangement be tried in a smaller county first. Elmore, a teacher, was the sponsor of a different bill that had its content stripped to allow for the introduction of the bill concerning Wake County schools.