SALISBURY — Commissioners Chairman Jim Sides said he wants to take over building and owning school system facilities because Rowan County has a history of completing construction projects under budget while the school board has a list of “past failures.”
But Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education Chairman Richard Miller called that position — and state legislation that would allow it — a “bullying technique.”
The bill would allow county commissioners to pass a resolution to take responsibility for any “construction, improvement, ownership or acquisition” of school property. County leaders will be given the option to leave the school board in charge of equipment, maintenance and repair.
The legislation began as a statewide bill, but it has since been pared down to just nine counties. Sen. Andrew Brock said he added the three counties he represents — Rowan, Davie and Iredell, which has since backed out — because people in the district were asking for legislation.
Brock said the measure was converted to a local bill because “there were counties that didn’t want to be a part of it.”
Sides told the Post this week he would support the legislation and the local option to take control of school system property if the legislation passed.
“We finance the buildings. We ought to build the buildings. We ought to own the buildings,” Sides said. “But that’s just my opinion as one commissioner.”
Sides’ support gives pro-bill commissioners the majority. Vice Chairman Craig Pierce and Commissioner Mike Caskey told the Post last week they would support the measure.
School system officials have maintained their opposition, saying county leaders don’t know what facilities are needed to house the programs and curriculum to educate children.
Miller said Wednesday the bill brings politics into education. He fears cost-cutting commissioners could look to gut future school projects during budget cuts, Miller said.
And he said it’s just the latest effort by county commissioners to undermine the school board.
“There is no respect by the county commission of the school board’s authority under law,” Miller said.
Referring back to a years-long debate over where to put a Rowan-Salisbury schools central office building, Sides said the bill would give commissioners “leverage that we don’t have right now.”
“They were offered a new central office in 2009, but it was at the bus garage. They refused it. They were offered a $6 million, 42,000-square-foot building. They refused it. They demand that they pick the site. They demand that they pick the size of the building. They demand that they pick how much money is involved in the project,” Sides said. “I don’t agree that the legislature gives them that much authority — it gives this board of commissioners that much authority.”
Jon Barber is the only commissioner to speak out against the legislation, calling it a potential “nightmare” for county leaders.
Barber has said previously the measure would require commissioners to spend more time on building issues and less time on job creation measures.
Commissioner Chad Mitchell has not responded to repeated phone calls seeking comment.
Sides also pointed to recent projects approved by commissioners that have been constructed under budget as he argued for control.
“I’m not going to get into past failures, what I consider to be past failures of the school boards. Their jobs should be to educate children. We do a good job of building buildings. We built the DSS building — came in under budget. We built the 911 center — came in under budget. We built the new jail — came in under budget. We’re building an airport hangar,” Sides said. “We’ve done it right. I don’t think they’ve necessarily done it right.”
However, Miller argued, coming in under budget doesn’t mean everything.
“That doesn’t mean they built the project that was needed,” Miller said.
Miller said curriculum and facilities often go hand-in-hand as school buildings need to “accommodate the programs that we have.”
The school board chairman also disagreed with Sides about how much authority the General Assembly has already placed in the hands of the two bodies. State law says school boards get the final say on where buildings go, Miller said.
“He keeps wanting to go back to ‘We offered this’ or ‘We offered that,’ ” Miller said. “You can offer it, but we get to make the final decision. That kind of example is what puts this whole thing into question as a political power grab.”
But as the two sides trade barbs, the chairmen acknowledge the importance of timing as an $8 million central office project on South Main Street looms on the balance.
At a meeting with city officials Friday, Miller urged the city to “get a shovel in the ground” at the downtown site.
When asked if he would try to stop the project if the bill passes, Sides said he wouldn’t stop a project in progress.
“If they get a shovel in the ground and they get some brick and mortar in the ground, I’m not going to vote to stop a project that’s going. It’s off of our table. It’s not our decision in Rowan,” Sides said. “Here again, it’s not a done deal. Even though you have attorneys that they say have told them that the local government commission will sign off on it. I haven’t seen that happen.”
That doesn’t mean school officials want to dilly dally.
“It’s certainly worthwhile to get a shovel in the ground as Commissioner Sides said,” Miller replied. “That’s the city’s project. The city will be building an office building. Hopefully we will be their tenant.”
Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.