Cary, N.C. — The Wake County Board of Education welcomed its newest member Tuesday evening, shortly before kicking off a public hearing about next year's budget.
Bill Fletcher fills the school board vacancy left by the departure of Debra Goldman. The Cary resident will represent District 9, which covers western Wake County.
"I want to help our district move forward," Fletcher said after a brief swearing in ceremony. "We are among the best in the nation and we can be the singular best in the nation."
Fletcher, a registered Republican, earned the support of six of the eight sitting board members, all of them Democrats. He was among six candidates to interview and previously served three terms on the board, from 1993 to 2005, and was involved in the last major bond issue advanced by the school system.
Fletcher said he does not support a move by the Wake County Board of Commissioners to take over ownership of school buildings.
"This school district has done an amazing job building schools on time (and) under budget," he said.
Chairman Keith Sutton said he is glad to have the board back at full strength with nine members and that he sees less animosity flying around the board table.
"I think we are a more focused board," he said.
But board member John Tedesco predicts battles ahead, especially as political tensions heat up between the school board, county commissioners and state lawmakers.
"We are going to have a long road ahead," Tedesco said.
The board has other big issues on its plate as well, including choosing a new superintendent and stabilizing student assignment after three years of shifting policy.
Fletcher was optimistic.
"This board is made of people, and people, when they listen to each other and share ideas, can make amazing things happen," he said.
Also during Tuesday's meeting, the school board heard from the public on a $1.4 billion proposed budget for the upcoming school year, which interim Superintendent Stephen Gainey calls conservative.
The proposal calls for the expansion of magnet programs and the opening of a new high school in the near future, but the goal is similar to last year – no reductions in staff and no significant cuts. To do so, it's asking for more money – $8.3 million – from the county.
The Wake County Public School System has projected 2 percent annual enrollment growth for the next decade and needs up to 16 new elementary schools, five middle schools and six high schools to keep up with the new students. Also, many older schools need extensive renovations.
Officials have estimated that construction and renovation needs could reach $2 billion by 2020. A bond for that amount could add as much as 16 cents to the property tax rate for Wake County residents.
While both school board and county commissioners recognize the need for a bond, they have butted heads over how school construction should be funded. In a joint meeting last month, the boards demonstrated the tension that exists between the Republican-led county commissioners and the Democratic-majority school board.
The commissioners maintain that they would be more fiscally responsible in operating the assets and that the move would allow the school board to concentrate on policy and curriculum.
Sutton likened the commissioners' effort to a "hostile takeover" of a business, and board member Susan Evans said it was a sign of disrespect.
Members of both boards said the acrimony between to the two elected bodies puts any appeal to voters for money at risk.