Raleigh, N.C. — A bill that would put the Wake County Board of Commissioners in control of area school buildings and land moved closer to passage Wednesday, despite criticism that it was politically motivated.
The Senate voted 33-15 to pass Senate Bill 236. It now heads to the House.
The bill originally applied statewide, but sponsor Sen. Neal Hunt, R-Wake, amended it to affect school districts only in 10 counties: Beaufort, Dare, Davie, Guilford, Harnett, Iredell, Lee, Rockingham, Rowan and Wake.
"The idea, really, is to give school boards an opportunity to spend the time they need on school education issues and to take advantage of the business acumen that county commissioners generally have to negotiate construction contracts, site acquisition and so on," Hunt said.
Republicans were able to remove Iredell County from the list in the Senate Education Committee and exempt Kannapolis City Schools, a portion of which is in Rowan County, from the legislation.
Democratic-backed efforts to remove Wake and Guilford counties failed in committee.
Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, who pushed to exempt the Wake County Public School System from the proposal, called the bill "payback, pure and simple" because the Wake County Board of Education is controlled by Democrats.
"If this were truly a good idea, why doesn't it apply to your counties?" Stein asked of powerful senators from Mecklenburg and Henderson counties. "It's not a statewide bill because you all know it's a bad idea."
He ticked off a list of accomplishments by the Wake County Board of Education in recent years, such as building or renovating more than 100 schools in the past decade, bringing projects in under budget by a combined $100 million and winning several design and budget awards.
"School buildings are part of the educational process," he said.
Hunt denied that the proposal is political, noting that a Democratic majority on the Board of Commissioners backed the idea several years ago.
"I like businesspeople making these kinds of multimillion-dollar decisions," he said, noting that a majority of North Carolina county commissioners have business backgrounds, compared with only a quarter of school board members statewide.
The move also would allow school boards to concentrate on educational policy and improving student performance, he said.
Control of the schools has been a flashpoint for a long-simmering feud between Wake County's Board of Commissioners and Board of Education. Disagreements have flared in recent months as the two groups have tried to work together on a $900 million bond to build about two dozen schools over the next decade.
Joe Bryan, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, told the Senate Education Committee there are "numerous examples" of the school board wasting taxpayer money by not performing appraisals before trying to acquire land for a school and not maintaining construction checklists.
"We're constantly having these struggles," Bryan said. "They've become a 'Board of Construction' and not a Board of Education focused on the academic excellence that needs to occur in our classrooms."
School board Vice Chairwoman Christine Kushner told the committee the two boards have worked together in the past, and the legislation would upset the balance of power.
"This legislation is truly a solution in search of a problem," Kushner said. "We do not need a state law for Wake County to address the matters that duly elected officials can solve together."
The North Carolina School Boards Association said all nine school boards impacted by the bill oppose it.
Terry Renegar, a member of the Davie County Board of Commissioners, said the bill boils down to a power play by commissioners in the affected counties and their allies in the General Assembly.
"The effect will be to chill discussion and input from educational experts as to what is needed to build a school," said Renegar, who opposes the bill. "The notion that the school board does not have the business acumen or does not have access to business acumen to efficiently build a school in a cost-effective manner is bogus."
The bill is the second piece of legislation targeting the Wake County school board to advance in the General Assembly this session. The other would revamp the districts of board members.