Cary, N.C. — The Wake County Board of Education appointed a retired principal Tuesday to fill one of two vacant school board seats and directed the superintendent to hire a legislative lobbyist amid a political showdown with county commissioners.
Thomas Benton, who began his career as a social studies teacher at Enloe High School before serving for 11 years as Durant Road Middle School’s first principal, will finish the rest of Chris Malone’s term, which expires in November.
Malone, who was elected to the District 1 seat serving northeast Raleigh in 2009, resigned in December after being elected to the state House of Representatives.
Eight people applied for his school board seat, and the board spent more than four hours interviewing candidates Tuesday afternoon before voting to choose Benton, a Democrat, during the public meeting.
Benton said he wasn’t sure about throwing his name into the race for Malone’s seat, but ultimately decided it was the right thing to do.
“To be very honest, my two daughters said, ‘Dad, how can you not do this?’” he said. “’You have always told us, if you have a chance to make a difference, you have to stand up and make a difference.’”
The school board will repeat the interviewing and voting process in March, when the board is expected to choose a replacement for former member Debra Goldman, who announced her resignation over email Friday.
Also at Tuesday’s meeting, the school board approved a directive for Interim Superintendent Stephen Gainey to hire a lobbyist that will defend the school system from what the board characterized as attacks on its authority by the Wake County Board of Commissioners.
The commission voted last month to seek legislative changes to how the school board is run after the relationships between the boards became increasingly strained over student assignment changes and the firing of former Superintendent Tony Tata.
At its Jan. 22 meeting, the Board of Commissioners approved its 2013 legislative agenda, which includes taking away ownership and oversight of school sites and buildings from the school system and giving it to commissioners. The commission is also seeking to change the way school board members are elected, creating five districts instead of nine and having four seats elected on an at-large basis.
School board Chairman Keith Sutton has called the commission’s plan an “obvious power grab” and said Tuesday that the school board needs to be “in the best position to not only respond, but to defend ourselves.”
"(The commissioners' agenda) strikes at the heart of the authority that has been granted to the school board by state statute," Sutton said.
Board member Susan Evans agreed.
“County commissioners have been aggressive and we have had to be defensive,” she said.
School board members John Tedesco and Deborah Prickett voted against hiring a lobbyist. Tedesco said the move will further exacerbate the commission’s concerns about how the school board uses its $12 million fund balance.
The school board is setting aside $100,000 from its savings in the fund balance to pay a lobbyist.
“That will go over well with commissioners,” Tedesco said sarcastically.
He was right – County Commissioner Tony Gurley called it a misuse of funds.
“I know this wasn't in the budget. So, they’ll have to use the unspent county tax money to pay for it,” Gurley said. “This will just be another misuse of the fund balance.”
Tedesco would like to see the school board repair its relationship with commissioners and thinks hiring a lobbyist will only fan the flames.
“We need to start having genuine dialogue and conversation, particularly before we start drawing swords and hiring lobbyists,” he said.
Benton, however, said he is glad to see the board standing up to commissioners.
“I am concerned about it, and I am glad to see the board take the steps it took tonight,” he said.
Benton will be sworn in on Feb. 19.