Members of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition and other supporters of the Democratic school board majority turned their attention Monday on the Republican majority on the Wake County Board of Commissioners.
During the public comment section, several speakers criticized the commissioners for asking for state legislation to take over ownership of schools, to be able to give money to help build charter schools and to change the way school board members are elected. It also came with a warning.
"I hope that the Wake County Commissioners don't want to radicalize lots of middle-class parents," said Robert Siegel. "But if you do start messing with our schools, we're going to respond the same way we responded to the extremist school board of 2009. I don't think you want Wake County to become a national disgrace again."
In 2014, all four seats held by Republicans on the board of commissioners are on the ballot. The incumbents or their successors need to sweep all four seats to retain the majority.
Amy Womble was the first speaker on Monday as she said she had voted for both Commissioners Joe Bryan and Tony Gurley the first time they ran because she thought they were reasonable people. But Womble said she was "disappointed" in their support of the new state legislative agenda.
Womble questioned the lack of public discussion before the legislative agenda was adopted and Tom Fetzer was hired as the county's lobbyist.
"I certainly hope that you are not following the example of poor governance set forth by the (former school board chairman Ron) Margiotta school board," Womble said. "Wake County citizens expect good governance. We want our commissioners to work together for the betterment of our school children and our community.
I would prefer not to bring this up but I feel I must. Our community has not forgotten Mr. Gurley, whose political gamesmanship to obtain his former chairship while Ms. Ward was out of the room. It saddens me greatly to witness such behavior on the part of some of our commissioners.
I ask you to please take a minute on your way home and step back and ask yourselves if this was how you were taught to resolve conflict. Please make decisions based on data and research and not ideology. For the good of our county, please work together."
John Eberhart questioned how Wake commissioners say they want a school bond issue to pass this year at the same time they're trying to get control of school ownership.
"Do you really believe that Wake County voters will approve a bond referendum in the midst of the governance dispute designed by you to strip power from an equally elected body?" Eberhart said. "Thereby depriving the school board members of this responsibility, this authority and its expertise with which they were elected by the citizens. What are you thinking?"
Eberhart said the current system of school ownership has "worked well in Wake County over the past 50 years resulting in one of the top school systems and one of the top counties in the country."
"Shenanigans, power plays and high-powered lobbyists at thousands of taxpayer dollars is not the way to pass critically needed school construction referendums," Eberhart said.
With the joint meeting of both boards scheduled for Thursday to discuss the school bond, Eberhart said it would be a good time for commissioners to withdraw their legislative request.
During his turn, Siegel urged the commissioners not to make the same kinds of mistakes he said the former school board majority had made.
"I just would like to point out to the county commissioners that whether it's charter schools, or trying to control building of facilities or elections of board members, I hope this commission has learned some lessons of the fight over Wake County school board which brought national shame to a school system that had garnered national honors," Siegel said.
"I'll say the same words to you that I spoke to Mr. (former Superintendent Tony) Tata when he was touting his new plan which turned busing into a mess for students and a financial fiasco," Siegel continued. "'Please slow down. Study the facts and don't be driven by political ideology.'"
Lettice Rhodes focused on how some GOP commissioners have criticized the school system for having a $32.1 million undesignated fund balance/rainy-day fund. Rhodes said Commissioner Paul Coble was being "hypocritical" to complain about the district's fund balance when the county has one that's close to 12 percent.
Rhodes said that the school system has been "responsible and judicious" in using the fund balance for things such as restoring cuts in custodial service, partially restoring pay cuts to teacher assistants and avoiding teacher layoffs when the federal EduJobs money ran out.
"I can not imagine where our schools would be if the Board of Education had had to come to you to request funding for each of those expenses," Rhodes said to commissioners.
Rhodes said both the commissioners and the school board are duly elected bodies. She said commissioners should be helping the school board.
"They (school board) need your help and support to do their job," Rhodes said to commissioners. "Their job — educating children — is too important to be held hostage in partisan power plays. Please support them and our children."
Amy Lee pointed back to the Feb. 4 meeting where she said the majority of commissioners clearly didn't know how programming and grade level affects school facilities and capacity. She thanked Democratic Commissioner Caroline Sullivan for wanting to buy the former YWCA building in Raleigh for potential use as a pre-K facility.
"Thank you Ms. Sullvan for explaining to your colleagues the advantages of having a pre-K facility in the former YWCA building," Lee said. "It's too bad the majority of you don't seem to care about this important investment in our children's education.
It was also extremely disappointing to watch how you treated school system staff with such disrespect at that last meeting on Feb. 4th. Some of you owe (Wake school system chief business officer) David Neter and school system staff an apology."
Lee pointed to the experience the school system has building schools and the design awards it has won. She said that turning over construction authority to the county would cause confusion and delays in school maintenance, especially emergency maintenance.
Tom Rhodes urged commissioners to table their request to take over school construction.
"It displays a lack of trust in our school board," Rhodes said. "But it also displays a lack of trust in us as citizens who have elected that school board to carry out those duties just as we elected you to carry out the duties that you have been assigned."
Rhodes also brought up the school board's search for a new superintendent, something he said would be endangered by the legislative changes the commissioners are seeking.
"What qualified (superintendent) candidate would consider taking such a position when they have no authority to carry out the responsibilities that are key to the education of our children?" Rhodes said. "What qualified candidate would consider moving to Wake County to undertake these responsibilities in such an atmosphere of mistrust between bodies of our elected officials?
Is this the message that you want to send to potential candidates, to any other potential residents who are looking at moving into our county? I urge you, our Wake County Commissioners, don't try to fix what is not broken."