You might have been wondering whose meeting you were attending on Tuesday as school issues came up at the meetings of the Wake County school board and county commissioners.
As noted in today's article, commissioners voiced their concerns about the school system proposal's to add unarmed private security officers to every elementary school. As noted in today's article by Josh Shaffer, school board members reacted to the school issues that the commissioners were voting on as part of their 2013 State Legislative Agenda.
All this suggests a rocky road ahead as they work together on the bond issue and school funding.
Things got started at the beginning of the commissioners meeting where Republican Vice Chairman Phil Matthews tried to amend the meeting agenda to discuss the school security guard proposal. Matthews said it urgently needed addressing.
"I'm all about having security officers, but they need to be armed," Matthews said. "I can't see where an unarmed security officer is going to be able to protect any child."
Asked for an opinion, County Manager David Cooke said the school board was within its authority to spend the $835,000 for security in the current budget year.
Democratic Commissioner Betty Lou Ward suggested the matter would be better handled in a conversation among school board members and the commission. While agreeing, Republican member Paul Coble said the proposal showed skewed priorities on the part of the school board. People entering the county courthouse have to pass armed guards, he noted.
"What's more important than our children?" Coble asked. "If we need guards, they ought to be armed. Ultimately, there's going to be further discussion on their budget about how they are going to spend this money going forward."
Republican Commissioner Tony Gurley linked the security issue with the district having its own fund balance. He said this is a good example of what happens when a body such as the school board has $30 million sitting in an account.
Gurley said using the fund balance to pay for the unarmed guards is "the same attitude" that the school board had when it dipped into it to pay Tony Tata's separation agreement as superintendent.
"It's another example of the misuse of fund balance and I don't believe they should have a fund balance at all," Gurley said.
Without a vote, the board agreed that board chairman Joe Bryan would call school board chairman Keith Sutton to discuss the proposal. Since the school board tabled the issue, it's uncertain whether this discussion is still needed.
Commissioners then got on with the adoption of the 2013 State Legislative Agenda. The Republican majority passed asking for state legislative changes to allow for at large-school board elections, for commissioners to own schools and to be able to give money to help charter schools build their facilities.
Several times, Ward called for more dialogue with the school board, saying Tuesday’s votes would upset the school board and further sour relations with them.
Gurley noted that the commission has sought some of these changes for years, in some cases a decade, and has seen the school board give no ground.
“I don’t think they’re going to support this,” Gurley said.
GOP commissioners want to have four of the nine school board seats be elected at large. This would mean voters would decide on a majority of seats as they'd get the vote for the person from their district and the four at-large members.
Republican commissioners said they want the change because voters in Wake County feel underrepresented. A school board member might not give priority to a parent whose child goes to school in his district, but whose parents live and vote in another.
“People want to vote for more than one school board member,” Bryan said.
Commissioner James West, a Democrat, called such a shift “politically volatile” and said that no one he has spoken to supports it.
Democrats made similar objections to charter-school funding.
Gurley said the county doesn’t seek a mandate to fund construction of charter schools, but only the option to do so. There would be standards for which charter school got construction money, and the sum could not exceed half the average square-foot cost for Wake County schools.
Democratic Commissioner Caroline Sullivan said charter schools get built in places where the need for schools isn’t greatest, and sometimes lack standard features that traditional schools have, such as a cafeteria.
“A lot of these charter schools fail,” Sullivan said. “If they fail, we may own them.”
The longest conversation among the list of legislative goals came in the discussion over the commission’s desire to own school sites, to hold the authority to build them and to take control over their maintenance.
Gurley cited the example of how a few years ago the school board wanted to buy a school site in Apex for $8 million instead of the $4 million that was later approved.
“We have proven to be better fiscal stewards,” Gurley said.
Making that move will allow the school system to focus on academic excellence, Bryan said. But throughout the meeting, members acknowledged the feathers their moves are sure to ruffle.
“It does create some angst,” Bryan said. “But it’s a conversation our community should be willing to have.”
At least among the Democratic school board members, the reaction was not positive.
During interviews with reporters, Sutton said commissioners should be seeking compromise on school construction and ownership. He charged that the commissioners were trying to "bulldoze" the change through by going to the General Assembly.
Sutton said commissioners were going beyond their purview by asking for changes in how school board members are elected.
As for funding charter school construction, Sutton said that should only be done if the school district is given the same flexibility as charter schools in following state regulations.
Democratic school board member Susan Evans voiced her objections during the board comment section of the meeting.
Evans first touched on who should own schools.
"I’m concerned that altering responsibilities in this way will confuse the voters and the taxpayers," Evans said. "I feel that when the voters elect Board of Education members, they’re expecting us to make decisions on where and what type of facilities best meet the educational needs of our students. I think changing the ownership of facilities over to the county will confuse the public on who is accountable for what."
Evans then brought up taking money away from building and renovating the district's schools to build charter schools.
“Since most charter schools are run by private entities and many of them are for profit, I’m not sure that taxpayers will think this is a fair way to spend these funds that are so desperately needed to meet the ever-growing capacity needs of our public school system," Evans said.
Evans also objected to the idea of at-large school board elections.
"I worry that this may make running for school board too expensive for the average citizen who is willing to become a public servant," Evans said. "Having to run a countywide campaign and appeal to massive numbers of voters in an area that basically equates to two Congressional districts added together requires a large monetary and time investment.
The community may then have to worry about whether those with the most money begin to control our school board. I don’t think that’s in the best interests of our students. Is it even appropriate for the county commissioners to advocate for how school board members are elected?
I certainly hope that something as important as these issues would be put before the public to consider before laws are changed to accommodate these requests by the county commissioners.”