Raleigh, N.C. — After an acrimonious debate that highlighted rifts within the Republican caucus, House lawmakers voted Wednesday not to approve an attempt to hand over Wake County's schools to the county's commissioners.
Despite the urging of Wake County Republicans and chamber leaders, at least 21 Republicans broke ranks to vote with House Democrats against the bill. It failed to win House approval by a vote of 52 to 64.
The proposal would have made Wake the only county in North Carolina in which the school board did not control school construction and maintenance. That power would have been given to the Wake County Board of Commissioners, which is majority Republican.
Republican backers of the bill said their aim was to bolster voter confidence in an $810 million school bond issue on the ballot this fall.
"There has to be confidence that the money will be spent wisely," said Rep. Skip Stam, R-Wake.
But Democrats called it a transparent attempt at political payback by Wake County Republican leaders angry at the school board's Democratic leaders.
"This is just pure politics, a blatant power grab by the Wake County Republican delegation and the county commissioners," said Rep. Rosa Gill, D-Wake.
Both Republicans and Democrats complained about the process.
Rep. Jeff Elmore, R-Wilkes, openly challenged Stam and House Rules Committee Chairman Tim Moore over their handling of the bill. He was the primary sponsor of the original House Bill 726, a measure completely unrelated to the Wake County schools battle.
"There were a few minor technical changes – the title changed, and the entire content changed," Elmore said, urging the House to vote against it, despite Stam's support.
Finance Committee Chairman Mitch Setzer, R-Catawba, attempted to derail the bill by sending it back to committee for a fiscal note, but his move was stymied by Moore, R-Cleveland, who kept the bill on the floor.
Rep. Yvonne Holley, D-Wake, said Elmore's bill was hijacked after an earlier attempt failed in committee.
"Wake County was voted off in committee," Holley said. "I thought this bill was dead. Somehow, I’m learning here in the General Assembly nothing’s dead because you can bring it to life on a whim if you want it brought to life."
After debate grew heated, Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly, another member of the House leadership, cut off debate.
“The process in this bill sucks,” said Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake.
Bill supporters could try to push the measure through again before the end of session, but Wednesday's strong opposition makes that less likely.
"I think it's unfortunate," said sponsor Sen. Neal Hunt, R-Wake. "You win some, you lose some. We might think about it next year."
School board Chairman Keith Sutton expressed relief at the House vote and said the board would continue to fight efforts to wrest away control of school buildings.
“We need to maintain control over our construction and maintenance of facilities and siting (of future schools), so we will continue to monitor that and watch that and try as best we can to put up a good fight and hold onto it," Sutton said.