The Wake County school board is going to fight it out in the General Assembly against the county commissioners over proposed legislative changes.
As noted in today's article, members of the school board's Democratic majority objected to the legislative changes backed by the GOP majority on the county commissioners. The school board will fight letting commissioners take over ownership of schools, give money to help charter schools build facilities and their support for adding at-large school board seats.
Democratic board members said they were defending the school system by hiring a lobbyist to oppose the commissioners' 2013 state legislative agenda.
“The County Commission has adopted a legislative agenda that includes a number of proposals that I feel are in direct conflict with the best interests of our school system," said Democratic school board chairman Keith Sutton. "In order to effectively respond to these proposals, I feel that our school system needs to act expeditiously to retain the services of appropriate professionals, including a lobbyist.
As you have noticed, the General Assembly is moving pretty quickly on many legislative items, and I think we need to be in the best position to not only be able to respond, but to defend - for a lack of a better word - ourselves and try to maintain what is in the best interests of students, families and our schools in Wake County.”
The authorization to hire a lobbyist wasn't officially on the agenda. What was used was a closed-session discussion topic about a legal issue involving acquisition of property. Sutton said it dealt with discussion of a middle school site in Northeast Raleigh that commissioners tabled voting on Monday.
Sutton pointed out that board policy 8361 allows the superintendent to enter into contracts of up to $100,000 without board approval. But Sutton said he wanted the school board to vote on authorizing interim Superintendent Stephen Gainey to enter into the contracts to show the action was board directed.
Sutton said hiring a lobbyist will allow the school district "to have boots on the ground."
"This is board issue that has implications not just for Wake County but all school boards across the state," Sutton said. "With us being the largest here in the capitol city, we need to certainly be in position to again address these issues."
Sutton said he envisioned Gainey issuing one contract for a person to manage legislative affairs and a separate contract for the lobbyist.
Republican school board member John Tedesco asked whether Wake had made its legislative lobbyist a part-time position after it was reduced from a full-time job. The former board majority eliminated the position.
Gainey said that after the job was eliminated, they had discussed that if it was brought back it would be a part-time position. But Gainey said they never went that far to fill the position.
Sutton said it would take time to advertise to recruit the in-house position, something he said couldn't be done because of the lack of timeliness.
Tedesco asked wasn't the rationale for rejoining the N.C. School Boards Association that they could use that group's lobbyist. Tedesco said adding costs at this time was more than he was interested in when he felt they could put those dollars to better use elsewhere.
In addition to the NCSBA lobbyist, Tedesco said board members could individually lobby legislators.
“I’m concerned about those dollars at this time," Tedesco said.
Sutton answered that because the legislation proposed by commissioners singles out Wake that he feels they should have their own person "for adequate and equal representation." If it was just a statewide issue, Sutton said he could support relying on just NCSBA.
“I find it very unfortunate that we’re in this position and that the county commissioners have taken this aggressive action for which we have no choice but to be defensive," said Democratic board member Susan Evans. "I wish it were not the case, but it is the case.”
Republican board member Deborah Prickett asked where the funds for the contracts would come from. Sutton answered that it was from savings in local funds, aka the undesigned fund balance.
"That will go over well with commissioners," Tedesco quipped, a reference to how several GOP commissioners are unhappy that the school board has a fund balance and that it's over $32 million.
“I simply think it’s worth noting that if we did not have construction authority in the past few years, we could not have done the Hilburn K-8 innovation," said Democratic board vice chairwoman Christine Kushner. "We would not have been able to do the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Leadership Academy innovation. We would not have been able to find the innovative solutions we did to the ninth-grade centers for both Garner High School and for Panther Creek and Green Hope.
I think it’s very imperative that the Wake County Board of Education — which is an elected body just like the county commissioners and the legislature — that we retain that authority so we can do our jobs."
Tedesco asked if there's a financial cap to the board's approval. School board attorney Jonathan Blumberg said that Gainey would still be limited to approving up to $100,000 per contract and would need to ask the school board for permission for more funds.
Democratic board member Jim Martin said he wanted to reaffirm a few things Kushner had noted. Martin mentioned how earlier in the meeting school staff said that they might need 13 to 23 new schools in the next construction program, with the location of the schools affecting who and how many are reassigned.
“Whoever has siting authority really is the one who does mandatory assignments," Martin said. "And I think we need to be aware of that.
I’m not sure that any of us approve of what’s been going on with mandatory assignments. I think we want to be careful with the siting so assignments can appropriately be done."
All five Democrats voted yes and the two Republicans voted no in the 5-2 vote.
It was apparent from the start of the school board meeting how unhappy board members were with commissioners. Sutton brought up how school staff were grilled Monday by county commissioners over the fund balance and the purchase of the YWCA building.
Sutton said he wanted to commend staff for maintaining a level of professionalism in the face of what he thought was probably not the best circumstances in terms of the exchange between them and commissioners.
"We were watching and certainly appreciate your level of professionalism as you handled what was I think a very tenuous situation at best," Sutton said of Monday's meeting.