Wake County Schools

Wake school bond meeting lights fuse in boards' feud

Posted February 21, 2013 6:14 a.m. EST
Updated February 21, 2013 6:28 p.m. EST

— Three hours of dry discussion of school capacity, enrollment growth projections and building needs devolved into name-calling and finger-pointing Thursday morning between the Wake County Board of Commissioners and Board of Education.

The two boards met to hammer out details of a proposed school construction bond for the fall ballot. Although both sides left saying they were committed to getting a bond issue passed, they lobbed charges and counter-charges at each other for almost an hour and said they probably needed a special meeting just to discuss their differences.

"Hiding and dancing around the 800-pound gorilla is going to get us nowhere," school board member John Tedesco said. "Let's deal with it and move forward."

The dispute stems from the Board of Commissioners' effort to wrest control of the school buildings and land from the Board of Education. 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.

"Classrooms – who's in them, how many they are, where they are – actually impact the education of our children, so this is part of our focusing on education," school board member Jim Martin said.

"Where is the business model that (changing the ownership of schools) will save money?" Martin asked. "Until there's an objective, data-based business plan on the table, a promise to save money is nothing more than a hollow promise."

Board of Commissioners Chairman Joe Bryan pointed to instances where the commissioners were able to purchase land for schools at much lower prices than those negotiated by the school board.

Still, school board Chairman Keith Sutton likened the commissioners' effort to a "hostile takeover" of a business, and board members Susan Evans said it was a sign of disrespect.

"I found (it) a real slap in the face," Evans said. "We’ve been left out of the conversation, and you’ve jumped ahead asked legislators to jerk the power away from us."

Bryan and commissioners Paul Coble and Tony Gurley noted that they have squabbled with the school board for years over ownership of area schools, so asking lawmakers to draft legislation to that effect shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.

"If you don't have a good argument, you're going to lose this bond issue," Coble told school board members. "We want to make sure that the voters of Wake County understand that we're doing everything we can to lower costs in every way that we can."

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 estimated Thursday that construction and renovation needs would top $1.75 billion by 2020. A $1 billion school bond could add as much as 8 cents to the property tax rate for Wake County residents.

"It's a huge challenge, clearly," Bryan said, adding that he feels "more comfortable" with the needs after Thursday's meeting.

"We're glad you feel this is not a tough piece of steak to you and you can chew on it," Sutton said.

Evans and others expressed fear that details of the proposed bond wouldn't be ready in time for an October vote, which could jeopardize the effort.

Members of both boards said the acrimony between to the two elected bodies – Gurley, for example, accused Evans of calling him a jerk as he spoke Thursday – also puts any appeal to voters for money at risk.

"Right now, the community is seeing this as a bunch of adults acting like children, fighting over turf and power," new school board member Tom Benton said.

"I think we need to try and find a way to move forward together on this. If we do not, it will have devastating consequences," Commissioner Caroline Sullivan said.

Tedesco tried to preach calm as the meeting wound down, and Gurley broke the tension by suggesting that Sutton and Bryan kiss at the end, much as he kissed former school board Chairwoman Patti Head after a heated debate years ago.

"I think the entire community loses out if the referendum doesn’t pass. There are no winners in that," Sutton said.