Association wants county boards to own schools
SALISBURY — County governments should be allowed to take ownership and control of school properties, according to a group representing North Carolina’s county commissioners.
The N.C. Association of County Commissioners has approved a legislative goal to give counties the option to “acquire, own and construct traditional public school sites and facilities.” Those responsibilities currently fall to local school boards.
It’s one of 58 such goals that the association hopes to work with legislators in the General Assembly to achieve.
Jim Sides, chairman of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, was Rowan’s voting delegate to the association’s annual conference on Jan. 24 and 25.
Normally, each county submits its top priority goals to the association months in advance. The goals then go through a thorough review process, said Todd McGee, the association’s communications director.
“Each goal is assigned to one of seven steering committees,” McGee said. “Then it must be approved by the legislative goals committee and the board of directors.”
But this goal, along with one other, was brought up from the floor at the conference.
“We don’t want to shut out new commissioners, and we want them to have a voice,” McGee said. “If they have an idea that they want to be considered, they can bring it to the conference in January and submit it.”
The new ideas are vetted only through one screening committee, McGee said, before being presented to the membership. But they must receive a higher number of votes in order to pass.
Sides said the goal about school property went through “a quite lengthy discussion,” he said, before the delegates voted to approve it.
Sides didn’t suggest the goal - it came from Wake County - but he said he likes the idea.
He said Rowan commissioners haven’t addressed it as a board, but they did vote 5-0 to support the association’s list of goals after reading through them.
“I think the Board of Education should be charged with the education of children,” Sides said. “Since we’re charged with the capital investment and capital improvement of schools, why shouldn’t we be in charge of it?”
But Richard Miller, chairman of the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education, said Rowan County does not currently fund construction of school buildings.
Instead, money for repairs and renovations comes from state sales tax revenue, and the county is using lottery funds from the state to pay bond debt for school construction.
That arrangement was started with a mutual agreement between the previous chairmen of the two boards.
Miller said he doesn’t think giving the county control of the school system’s buildings is a good idea, because commissioners are more “politically driven.”
“I think building decisions wouldn’t be made by what’s in the educational interests of the students,” he said. “I think the school board is much more familiar with why we need certain type of facilities, why we need certain configurations of buildings, which ones need to be adjacent and things like that.”
The Cabarrus County Board Education planned to vote Monday on a resolution that opposes the transfer of school property to county commissioners.
Miller said a similar resolution is “quite likely” to come up at a Rowan-Salisbury school board meeting.
“I think our founding fathers knew what they were doing when dividing power between the current boards,” he said. “It’s about checks and balances.”
At this point, the idea is just a goal that hasn’t yet made its way into legislation.
“All of our goals that are approved are what our advocacy staff will work on and pursue with the General Assembly,” McGee said.
If such a bill is drafted and passed, Sides said, that won’t mean all county boards of commissioners will take control of school property.
“This would give the counties the option, but other votes would be necessary to actually implement it,” Sides said. “A lot of details haven’t been ironed out yet, but on the surface, I am in favor of doing that. It would take that area of contention between the schools and county away, I believe.”
Right now, that contention is focused on the topic of a central administrative office for the school system.
Sides said he takes issue with the school board using any current capital expense money to fund the central office. The board should wait until 2016, he said, when it retires bond debt and has more money to put toward an office building.
But county commissioners can’t directly control how the school system spends those funds, when the central office is built or where it is located. It can only control whether or not to help secure financing for the project, because the school board can’t borrow money on its own.
If the N.C. Association of County Commissioners persuades legislators to pass the suggested bill, that would all change.
“Repairing the schools would be our responsibility, and we would make that a priority,” Sides said.
Miller has said that no urgent needs at school buildings are being neglected for the central office, because the school board makes sure those repairs are funded.Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.