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Wake commissioners break off-course on school needs

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Of late, I've been catching up on episodes of Lost. But not ABC's saga of crash survivors on a strange island. I'm talking about the Wake County commissioners, who were themselves flying high following the November elections but have since wandered miserably off-course in trying to micromanage the schools.

The commissioners first lost their way—and I'm talking about the Republicans who hold a 4-3 majority—when they reneged on a promise to make Democrat Harold Webb vice chair for 2007 and in line to be chair in 2008. Instead, they gave the post to newly elected Republican Paul Coble, the former Raleigh mayor. So much for the bipartisanship by which they'd pledged to steer the county.

That wrong move was compounded by a much worse one, when the commissioners decided—and again, I'm talking about the Republicans—to pull the rug out from under the Wake Board of Education. Republicans Tony Gurley, the commissioners' chair, and Joe Bryan, who was chair before him, were re-elected in November on a promise to continue working closely with the school board. Together, and in the face of a lot of headwind from the pundits, they'd pushed across a record $970 million school bond issue. No sooner had it passed, however, than the Republicans were picking it apart, holding back money the school board should've been given immediately.

So much for that cooperation thing, too.

Then, in their most radical departure, the commissioners decided, at their annual retreat, that what was really needed was a second bond issue of up to $1 billion—and not in '09 or maybe '08, as previously agreed, but this year! The county manager, David Cooke, was told to write a letter inviting the school board to propose it—because that's something only the board can do, after which the commissioners would concur—which Cooke promptly did.

It led to an emergency meeting of the school board, which went ahead last Thursday even though it was a snow day, where the board sued for peace. Even though the idea of a second mega-bond in two years came completely out of the blue as far as they were concerned—no consultation, not even a heads-up that the commissioners were about to rewrite their construction plans—and even though most board members think an '07 bond would fail at the polls, the board was determined not to lock horns with the commissioners.

Said the board: We'll consider your offer.

But were the commissioners really offering? At their meeting on Monday, the three Democrats said they weren't, and they challenged the Republicans to put it to a vote. Suddenly, only Bryan and, less avidly, Gurley were supporting the thing. Kenn Gardner wasn't. And Coble wasn't, either, even when Webb called him out directly about it. Coble did agree with the Democrats, however, that a bond on the '07 ballot "is probably doomed."

Watching the commissioners flail away, it struck me that Gurley and Bryan, heretofore moderates, have been captured by "Other" Republicans in the person of Coble and, apparently, Gardner. And whereas the moderates (remember Herb Council, Coble's predecessor?) used to seek consensus with the Democrats and the school board, the "Others"—not unlike the bunch on TV's Lost—have their own mysterious agenda.

Or maybe not so mysterious.

What's obvious is that Wake County has a big and worsening problem of under-capacity in its schools. Not enough seats, that is, and more kids pouring in at the amazing rate of 8,000-plus a year. The "Others" love the growth, but they don't like raising taxes to build schools—and throughout the '90s they didn't, leading to today's mess.

The 2006 bond hardly solved the problem, and indeed $970 million was half the amount needed to gain on it. But nobody—including me—thought the voters would say yes to a billion-plus bond. So a compromise was reached. The school board would convert 22 schools to year-round calendars, gaining 3,000 seats, and put every new elementary school on year-round calendars, too. Meanwhile, the commissioners would back two or three more big bond issues over the next five years.

One result of this compromise is that kids are going to be assigned to year-round schools for the first time this summer, and some of their parents—especially if they have other kids in traditional schools—don't like it. The school board is promising that they can apply for seats in traditional schools, and it will try to accommodate them.

But because schools are in really short supply in fast-growing Apex, accommodations there are limited, and hundreds of Apex parents are in open revolt.

And school board elections—for five of the nine seats—are this October.

No politician—and the county commissioners are that—would stand by without offering some sop to Apex. Fine. But instead of telling the school board, look, anything you can do there, we'll help you pay for it, the commissioners instead are withholding $4.7 million needed for all the conversions.

The conversions will happen anyway, of course—the school board can find $4.7 million, believe me—but by picking a fight, the commissioners will be able to blame the school board for a conversion policy both set in motion.

Then stay tuned, as the "Others" try once again to capture the school board—why? We'll find that out in a future episode.

Citizen's address: rjgeary@mac.com.

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