Raleigh, N.C. — A bond referendum on next year's ballot could help the growing Wake County Public School System build more schools, if it doesn't fall victim to what many see as a growing partisan feud between the state's largest school system and county leaders.
After the Democratic-controlled Board of Education fired Superintendent Tony Tata on Tuesday, Paul Coble, chairman of the Republican-controlled Wake County Board of Commissioners, called the move a "slap in the face" that could interfere with commissioners approving a bond for the November ballot.
Democratic school board members who voted to fire Tata, including Jim Martin, denies Tata's firing was political and says that it is Republicans, like Coble, who are fanning the partisan flames.
"We'll see who's using things for politics," Martin said Thursday. "If you're trying to make threats out of not building enough schools, it strikes me, that's politics."
Over the past 12 years, Wake County voters have approved nearly $2 billion in school construction bonds, including a $970 million referendum in 2006.
Since then, 21, 457 additional students have enrolled in the school system, which sees about 3,500 to 5,000 new students each year.
Currently, about one in three schools is over capacity, and as recently as July, Tata said new school construction is necessary, estimating a need for about three new schools a year.
Tim Simmons, vice president of communications for the Wake Education Partnership, a group that builds business and community support for school bonds, says that politics could hurt the chances of seeing it approved.
"They are going to have to figure out how to get beyond that," Simmons said. "Students keep coming every year, whether they're fighting at the school board level or the county commission level."
Harvey Schmitt, chief executive officer of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, which also works to support school bonds, asked school board leaders Monday to reconsider Tata's firing and warned them that the move could hurt public confidence in the school system.
He thinks a bond could pass next year if the board can figure out how to work together by then.
"The reality is that we can't get stuck here. We've got bigger fish to fry," Schmitt said. "The bottom line is we continue to grow. If we don't respond to that growth, we get further behind, and that's not in the best interests of any of the populations here in this community, regardless of their political position."
Schmitt says voters will be watching to see how well the board works as a team in the search for a new superintendent.
Acting Superintendent Stephen Gainey also admits that the turmoil on the board could make a bond referendum difficult to pass.
"I believe this community is one that has high expectations for what the school system should look like, should be like," he said. "At the end of the day, when we have needs, I think the community, from my perspective, has always responded. A lot of it rests with trust, in my mind, so we've got our work cut out for us."