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To lawmakers: Please don’t ‘help’ us

Dear Members of the N.C. House,
Remember Ronald Reagan’s great line about the most terrifying words in the English language? “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
We here in Rowan County have been struggling to develop better relationships among our local elected boards — city, county and schools. And we are hearing some pretty terrifying language, too.
It’s the equivalent of “I’m from the state and I’m here to help,” and it’s called Senate Bill 236, “Counties Responsible for School Construction.”
Please don’t.

Similar county-school conflicts in Wake County spurred the writing of this bill. It started as a public bill for all 100 counties. Problem was, not many counties agreed with it and they wanted out.
Now SB 236 is a local bill involving only nine counties — Davie, Guilford, Harnett, Lee, Rockingham, Rowan*, Beaufort, Dare and Wake — and it’s is looking increasingly sketchy.
I put an asterisk beside Rowan because the bill doesn’t even include all of Rowan. Kannapolis is excluded. That makes this bill hyperlocal here, applicable only to the Rowan-Salisbury Schools.
And a footnote to the bill — or perhaps a headline — should point out that arguments being made in its favor are built on sand.
The bill gives commissioners the “option” of taking ownership of school buildings and responsibility for siting and building new ones. Proponents say that counties don’t pay sales tax, so giving them ownership will save money on taxes during construction projects. Fortunately, somebody here already figured out a way around that. During the last bond project, the Rowan-Salisbury school system deeded the school site to the county to avoid paying sales tax. So on this point, the bill’s rationale begins to crumble.
Other arguments for this bill also fail to stand up under closer scrutiny.

Advocates say there would be a consolidation of services to save money because counties already have site/facility acquisition staffs and could absorb those duties.
Not sure what you’d consolidate here. County commissioners and the county manager play the role of acquisition experts for the county, as far as I can tell.
They have their hands full with county facility concerns, from extending an airport runway 1,000 feet (in hopes the county will no longer have to subsidize the airport) to finding new uses for vacant county-owned buildings.
Other projects in process or on a wish list include more spacious quarters for the Board of Elections, a full EMS station in western Rowan, a business incubator, a warehouse and a $9 million expansion of the landfill. That’s for starters.
The county has dealt with some of its real estate “challenges” by selling them — such as the baseball stadium in Kannapolis and the county fairgrounds. And part of our floundering industrial park is under option to a shopping center developer.
Just as our commission chairman has said of the school system, the county commission has some “past failures” too. Stuff happens. And the commission is working hard to wash its hands of them.

Advocates for letting counties take ownership of school buildings say counties can get better bond ratings and therefore lower interest rates if they own the schools.
Happily, Rowan County is in very good standing. Fitch Ratings assigned an AA rating to the county’s $12 million community college bonds in 2011. That’s the second-highest rating in the Fitch scale, indicating very high credit quality. (Wake County has a bond rating of AAA, so taking over school buildings is not going to help that county with bond ratings, either.)

County commissioners tend to have business backgrounds, SB 236 advocates say. Let boards of education focus on educating students and not on land acquisition and construction.
True, we do have some educators on our school board, as well has people who have worked in the private sector.
But the five-member county commission has had its share of educators, too. It now has an educator, a former educator who has started a business, a police officer, a business owner and a retired businessman.
Data presented supporting this bill is based on the occupational composition of school boards in the state’s major metropolitan areas — most of whom are not part of the bill. Rowan data is not included.
As it is, commissioners have a virtual veto over large school construction projects, since school systems cannot take on debt. They turn to the county to do that.
As a result, more than 20 years after merging the city and county school systems, Rowan has yet to establish a central office. Commissioners have found reasons to turn down every site school officials pick.
The city of Salisbury has offered to help the schools get financing to build a downtown central office. Commissioners say that’s fine with them. But this legislation would probably stop that initiative, and it would definitely strip the school board of any ability to direct the scope and location of future school construction projects.
Yes, we have friction between some of our local elected boards. That’s our problem that we need to solve — here, at the ballot box and through meetings. Any intervention from the state, especially this peculiar bill, is only going to make it worse.
County commissioners have great responsibilities and powers. Concentrating even more power in one elected board by taking it from another is risky business, considering how volatile local elections can be. This bill would turn a system of checks and balances into one of authoritarian control.
The Senate passed this bill, probably thinking the counties involved were all for it. Lots of people in Rowan County would beg to differ. Please kill this bill and let our local boards work this out among themselves.

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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