Wake commissioners put off school projects, ask for proof of good stewardship

mquillin@newsobserver.comJanuary 10, 2014 

— Wake County commissioners said Monday they will not fund design work on three planned new schools until the Board of Education proves it will use tax money the most efficient way possible on the projects.

To get that assurance, commissioners said, they will need to meet with the school board and have the two boards figure out a way to work together.

“We need more clarification that the money is being spent wisely,” Commission Chairman Phil Matthews said after the board’s regular meeting Monday afternoon.

During the meeting, the board voted 4-3, along party lines, with Republicans denying a school board request to approve a total of nearly $3.9 million in start-up design money for an elementary school in Cary, one in Holly Springs and a middle school in Raleigh. The board had given initial approval to the request, then tabled it in December while asking for additional information from the school board.

Though commissioners received more information in the weeks since, Republicans said it still was not enough.

Commissioner Paul Coble said he was especially concerned about the way the school board used the word “prototype” when discussing school design. Coble favors using the same design repeatedly because it can save on design costs, but the school board would borrow some of its prototypes from other schools systems.

“What’s the advantage of using a prototype from somewhere else if you have never built it?” Coble asked. “To me, a prototype is a building that we have built successfully and we take it and build it again and again and again.”

The Board of Commissioners tabled a request for an additional $1.1 million in design funds for two additional elementary schools, saying members needed to first resolve whether the school board is making economical decisions.

Christine Kushner, the new school board chairman, said in an interview Monday night that she, too, felt it would be in the best interest of both boards – and the public – for the two groups to meet in person more often.

“We have to be careful with public money,” she said. “Accountability is important.”

Kushner and Matthews both said their boards will schedule times to meet, and the sooner, the better.

“We have deadlines,” Kushner said, and those have to be met to open schools on time.

Commissioners did approve the purchase of a piece of land to complete the site for a future North Raleigh middle school.

The Republican-led commission has clashed with the Democratic-led school board over which group of elected officials should control building, maintaining and ownership of schools, with commissioners saying the school board needs to be more careful in how it spends money. With last year’s passage of an $810 million school bond issue, the county boards have 18 new schools to build, along with six major renovations and smaller repairs at 79 schools.

Coble said it may turn out that the school board’s existing plans are the best. But, he said, the paperwork commissioners have received doesn’t demonstrate that.

In November, Tony Gurley got fellow commissioners to approve an interlocal agreement that formally asked the school board to spell out circumstances under which it might ask commissioners to take responsibility for school construction. The school board has not responded to the proposal.

Republican commissioners failed last summer to get legislative approval of a bill that would have let their board take over school construction from the school board.

Also during Monday’s meeting, commissioners approved the use of $521,536 in open-space bonds, along with $8,464 in fees to buy 35 acres in Knightdale next to what will become the county’s next park.

The land, once slated to be part of a subdivision, is off the U.S. 64 East Bypass and Smithfield Road and is adjacent to land already purchased for Lake Myra County Park. The developer, Richard Stockett, also has agreed to give the county greenway easements on two more tracts.

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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