In 2011, when a Democratic majority regained control of Wake County’s school board, diversity advocates believed they could rest easy for a few years. They were wrong.
Republicans who control the Wake County Board of Commissioners have devised a scheme that would sap much of the democratically elected school board’s power.
The two boards have a decades-old history of opposition. But rather than continue to fight the school board to a stalematewhich is commoncounty commissioners are asking their conservative buddies who control the Legislature to strip away a significant portion of the school board’s power and hand it to the county commission.
The request is part of the county commission’s legislative agenda, which was released in January.
County commissioners have made two demands that would undermine the school board’s power. The first would require four of the nine school board members to be elected on a countywide basisknown as at-large seats. The second would allow county commissioners to own all school buildings and control the construction of future schools.
By establishing at-large school board races, voting power would shift from inner Raleigh to the suburbs and beyond, where conservatives command a larger majority.
Currently, school board members are elected in small, separate districts, while commissioners run countywide. That electoral system partially explains why the school board has been historically left-leaning and the commission historically conservative.
“We live in a county that is fairly evenly split,” says David McLennan, a political science professor at William Peace University. “With the current model, even if Republicans work really hard, they are not going to win some school board races.”
While each race would be competitive and citizens could vote for more school board candidates, “you could end up with overrepresentation for the suburbs,” McLennan says.
At-large races also make it more difficult for middle-income, working people to run for office. Wake County is larger than some states and U.S. congressional districts. It requires more time and money to run a countywide race.
Several speakers during the public comment portion of the county commission’s meeting on Monday spoke out against the changes.
“I’ve been kind of shocked that people don’t want to have access to greater representation and the ability to vote for the majority of the school board,” says the commission chair, Republican Joe Bryan.
The construction of new schools isn’t usually the central disagreement between the school board and commission. More often they are at odds over wedge issues such and student assignment or funding.
Yet stripping the school board’s control of building new schools massively undercuts the board’s ability to govern education policy. And that’s exactly what some county commissioners wantto use control over school construction as a bargaining chip.
If commissioners had this power previously, they still couldn’t have scrapped the former diversity school assignment policy or blocked the firing of former superintendent Tony Tata, as they would have liked. But it would have given them leverage.
For example, if the majority of the school board wanted to reinstate a diversity policy, county commissioners could refuse to build new schools until they’ve evaluated the results of such an assignment plan.
“It’s important for the citizens of Wake County that the power to build and own schools stay with the school board,” says school board chair Keith Sutton.
Bryan says in asking for commission control over school construction, he is only abiding the wishes of the Wake Ed Partnership and the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce. He says that in 2006, those groups stated county commissioners should “build, own and maintain the schools.”
“This is generally representative of the business community and the education community,” Bryan says.
He says he won’t use controlling construction as leverage: “I’m not involved in student assignment. I don’t want to be involved in assignment.”
However, if the two boards weren’t ideologically opposed, the current proposal wouldn’t exist, says Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University.
“Obviously, you’ve got a turf battle going on,” Taylor says. “When you have these political disputes [between governing bodies], you will always have these efforts to expand power.”
Now that dispute rests in the hands of two competing lobbyists who have been hired to pressure legislators on behalf of their clients. The county commission has allocated $25,000 for a lobbying firm, and the school board has allocated $100,000.
The commission has secured former Raleigh Mayor Tom Fetzer, who was ranked the second most powerful lobbyist in North Carolina last year by the North Carolina Center for Public Policy Research.
It’s unclear if such muscle will even be necessary. Top Republicans have already indicated support of the commission’s proposal. And former school board member Rep. Chris Malone, R-Wake, says several plans to accommodate the commissioners’ request are already in the works at the General Assembly.
Chair Bryan knows the move is politically risky: “This guy told me a long time ago, ‘The act of leadership is the ability to disappoint those people that support you at a rate they can handle.’ I may have reached that.”
Correction: A sentence in the original story was incorrectly quoted; Obama carried Wake County in 2012 as well as 2008.
This article appeared in print with the headline “Tour de force.”