Should county own schools?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 13, 2013

How many new schools would Rowan County have if the county owned the buildings instead of the school system? Would we still have Elizabeth Duncan Koontz Elementary School? What about Jesse Carson High? And where would those campuses be?
The latest idea to address the inherent conflict between county commissions and school boards in North Carolina brings questions like that to mind. Wake County commissioners have asked legislators to allow them to own school sites and facilities, a new twist in a very bitter power struggle between the two boards. The issue has been incorporated into the N.C. Association of County Commissioners’ legislative agenda, and the chairman of the Rowan County commissioners likes the idea.
Coincidentally, this pops up just as the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education and commissioners have disagreed over building a central office downtown. Even though the school board owns its own property and buildings, it cannot take on debt. For that, the schools have always turned to county commissioners. He who has the gold rules, and commissioners have been known to refuse to seek a bond issue or get a loan if they don’t like the details of the schools’ plans, such as cost and location.
So that answers the questions about Koontz and Carson. The commissioners have signed off on every building project that required taking on debt.
If the Wake commissioners’ initiative actually became law, it might clarify the situation. Instead of bickering over who should decide where a school is built or how big it should be — with funds hanging in the balance — the lines of authority would be unquestionable. Commissioners would have complete power. And the recent development in the Rowan central office saga, with Salisbury City Council facilitating an $8 million loan for the schools, would be impossible.
That may seem simpler to commissioners, but the situation could get much more complex instead. If the county controlled all the facilities, would commissioners get involved with school redistricting? Would commissioners initiate building plans and review sites without or despite school board input? Do commissioners really want to take all that on?
The school board has more direct knowledge of the school system’s building and maintenance needs, and its actions are less vulnerable to shifting political winds.
If commissioners want to end conflict with school officials, they should consider taking the opposite tack and seek taxing authority for the school board itself. The board of education would be more powerful, but it also would be more accountable. The school board would have to answer directly to taxpayers and not be buffered by commissioners. Some 80 percent of school districts across the country do just that. That’s real clarity.