Wake County

Wake County leaders spar over education committee, a sign of deeper tensions

Wake County commissioners and school board members break ground on Hortons Creek Elementary School in Cary on June 7, 2016.
Wake County commissioners and school board members break ground on Hortons Creek Elementary School in Cary on June 7, 2016. newsobserver.com

A contentious debate among Wake County leaders about who will lead an education committee points to ongoing tensions about how much money should go to the school system.

Wake commissioners spent 45 minutes Tuesday evening figuring out who will lead the board’s education committee. Chairwoman Jessica Holmes nominated Greg Ford, a former educator who has advocated for additional spending for schools. But in the end, co-chairs were named for the group: Ford and Erv Portman, who some say is more willing to push back against school leaders.

“The reality is that Greg (Ford) has one perspective on public education and Erv (Portman) has another perspective,” said Commissioner Sig Hutchinson, who nominated Portman for the role. “Commissioner Ford comes from public education, so I think he is clearly going to be seeing things from the school board’s perspective. Commissioner Portman comes from a business perspective, and I think he really understands public education as being part of a comprehensive budget.”

The school system accounts for 52 percent of the county’s budget, as Wake pays to build schools and supplement teachers’ state salaries.

The county board and the school board are both led by Democratic majorities, but their relationship showed signs of strain last year when commissioners gave less than half of a requested $45.2 million school funding increase. Some leaders have suggested changing the way budget negotiations play out.

The two boards are now working to decide when the next school construction bond will be on the ballot, and how much they will ask voters to borrow. The amount could be about $1 billion.

Tuesday’s decision could be a sign of what’s to come for discussions about school funding – and potential tensions among commissioners.

Greg Ford

“I’m concerned about precedent and procedure more than anything,” said Ford, who worked as a teacher and principal in Wake for 19 years. “I’m happy to work and move forward with whomever, but this raises questions about how we do business.”

Portman, who owns a manufacturing company, said he was “honored to serve and help fix the dysfunction of the annual budget process.”

Matt Calabria is the third member of the education committee.

The Raleigh City Council last month had a similar debate about committee appointments. A majority of the council voted against Mayor Nancy McFarlane’s proposed assignments, shifting the political balance on committees dedicated to high-profile issues like growth.

Hutchinson said a majority of commissioners on Tuesday hoped to ensure the education committee continues to take a cautious approach to education spending.

Erv Portman

Holmes said the debate about the committee’s leadership was “concerning.”

Commissioner James West said the nomination of a committee co-chairman could be “truly damaging” and constituted an unnecessary undermining of Holmes’ leadership.

“We’re creating a situation that has no precedent in history,” West said. “We have not tested it. There’s a biblical saying that no person can serve two masters. I think that has implications as far as being as effective and organized as we can to get the job done.”

Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan