Local News

Wake Commissioners Freeze $13 Million From School Bond

Posted February 5, 2007 7:33 a.m. EST
Updated February 5, 2007 10:23 p.m. EST

— Wake County commissioners voted Monday to freeze $13 million from the $970 million school construction bond until they and school board members could agree on how it should be used.

The move came shortly after the commissioners voted to withhold $5 million of bond money school administrators planned to use to convert 22 traditional schools to a year-round calendar.

Commissioner Kenn Gardner asked school district administrators to review the $53 million project management budget they had put together in the wake of the bond's approval in November. When district officials told commissioners only $40 million in project management budget was accounted for in their plans, commissioners voted to freeze the extra $13 million.

Gardner said commissioners and school board members should determine how the additional money should best be used.

"We take that $13 million that now has no stated purpose," Gardner said, "put it in a reserve account until both boards can come up with a use for $13 million."

Commissioners earlier voted to release about $2 million to the district to move portable classrooms to traditional schools, which they said would give more flexibility to parents who do not want their children to attend year-round schools. They commissioners also approved funding so the district can proceed with planning for new school construction.

Last month, the commissioners had voted 4-3 to withhold more than $7 million from the Wake County school system, saying they needed more time to study the district's plan to convert 19 elementary schools and three middle schools to year-round schedules.

District officials say the year-round schools will provide them with the extra classroom seats they need to keep up with a booming enrollment. They said the commissioners' decision only delays hiring contractors to get projects started.

"We have to give the teachers equipment and the tools that they need so they can be ready (for the next school year)," said school board member Lori Millberg.

But the commissioners voted by the identical 4-3 margin against handing over $5 million of the $7 million to convert the schools to a year-round schedule and to pay for new mobile classrooms at the year-round schools.

Democrats said the Board of Commissioners is betraying voters who supported the school construction bond.

Republican commissioners said they hope the school board will find more choices for parents throughout the county. When those choices are available, some commissioners said they would give the money back.

"All I want to do is make sure parents have options," said Tony Gurley, chairman of the Board of Commissioners.

Parents who oppose mandatory year-round schools applauded Monday's vote, saying that withholding money for the school district is the only way more seats could become available at traditional schools.

"It's harder to get into the Wake County traditional schools if you are in mandatory year-round than it is to get into some of the hardest colleges in the United States," parent Nancy Myer said.

But teacher Jennifer Lanane, who is president of the Wake County chapter of the North Carolina Association of Educators, said she worries that students will suffer if the school district isn't given the needed resources.

"The children are getting lost. Education, great public schools, are getting lost. Teachers cannot do their job, students cannot learn," Lanane said.

School board Chairwoman Patti Head said she is extremely frustrated by the impasse with county commissioners. But she said she anticipates the year-round conversions will still take place in time for the 2007-08 school year.

School Superintendent Del Burns said the vote to hold the money is common when funds have no direct designation, but he acknowledged the tension between boards.

"In terms of back and forth with the board of ed and the commissioners, we're trying to move forward as best we can," Burns said. "There are times, and this is one of them, when there are different opinions and we have to work through them."

School leaders said they will continue to look for more seats in traditional calendar schools. Last Thursday, they showed off a plan that would create 2,400 new seats.