Editorial: Who ‘owns’ public schools?
A bill that would give county commissions the right to assume ownership of school properties suddenly has much greater significance and urgency for Rowan and 11 other counties.
This idea initiated with Wake commissioners, who have repeatedly clashed with the school board there. (Sound familiar?) Initially, the bill would have applied statewide, giving commissioners in all 100 N.C. counties the option, if they chose, of unilaterally taking over responsibility for construction, improvement, ownership and acquisition of public school property. Now, Senate Bill 236 has been turned into a local bill limited to Wake and 11 other counties — including Rowan.
That shouldn’t be surprising, since Rowan Commission Chairman Jim Sides had expressed interest in the idea. Among the arguments proponents advanced for this change: Since commissioners are already responsible for issuing bonds, they should own and have more oversight over the properties those bonds buy (as they do now with jails and libraries, for instance). Some, including Sen. Andrew Brock, contend that consolidating some property responsibilities at the county level could increase efficiency and benefit taxpayers.
Those are some of the rationales. In reality, it’s hard to see how this change would improve anything. Ultimately, let’s remember, neither the school system nor the commission “owns” these properties. They belong to the citizens. Under the current system, those citizens have a direct voice in how the school system is operated and managed — through the election of board members. Part of the statutory duty of those board members is to decide where schools will be built, along with the design of those buildings and their maintenance. As we’ve seen with the construction of West Middle and Carson High, to cite recent examples, those decisions are based on careful consideration of available sites, student enrollments and growth patterns and public hearings where citizens offer input.
If commissioners were in charge, what would they change about that? Are they going to look at different data, parley with different consultants, hire different architects — or janitors? Perhaps more importantly: Why dilute the voters’ prerogative to choose and hold accountable officials who have one and only one responsibility — overseeing the school system and its properties?
Rather than being about saving costs or improving efficiency, this proposal smacks of a turf grab aimed at consolidating more power in the hands of county commissions. What’s surprising is that it has emerged from legislative conservatives who, of all people, should realize that greater centralization of power rarely results in more responsive or more efficient government. It simply whets the appetite for more power and control. Unfortunately, as this legislature seeks more ways to strip power from local entities, that’s a principle conveniently abandoned.