03/14/13 — Commissioners, school board plan to meet Friday

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Commissioners, school board plan to meet Friday

By Steve Herring
Published in News on March 14, 2013 1:46 PM

The agenda for Friday's meeting between Wayne County commissioners and the Board of Education offers little clue as to what to expect, but the leader of the county school board says he and his fellow board members are prepared for a productive session.

School Board Chairman John Grantham said he sees the meeting as a way for both boards to learn more about the other.

However, Commission Chairman Steve Keen did not return repeated phone calls spread across two weeks for comment on the commission's objectives for the meeting.

The gathering will be open to the public and starts at 10 a.m. at the schools system's central office, 2001 E. Royall Ave.

And when asked one last time Wednesday afternoon if he had any comments, Keen said he didn't have time to talk, and that he had been too busy to return the calls. Keen also said he had said everything that he needed to say about his reasons for requesting the meeting and that those comments were already public.

The school board chairman said his board members are anxious to discuss the future of the schools, especially with regard to facilities and funding.

"We are not looking for an adversarial relationship," Grantham said. "I feel we have a good relationship. I don't think either board is dreading it. I think we are looking forward to it.

"We would like input as to what they may be able to fund. We want to make commissioners aware of how we came about our (facilities) plan and see what options are available and what money, if available."

The agenda includes an overview and comments by Keen and Grantham; presentation of the 2001-13 student population data by Dr. Craig McFadden, assistant superintendent for accountability and student services; a facility plan review by Taylor and Nan Barwick, assistant superintendent for fiscal service; and comments by commissioners and school board members.

The meeting comes nearly a year after Keen began his pursuit of inserting commissioners into school facilities planning.

After he initially failed to convince the previous Democratic-controlled board to call for the meeting, Keen pleaded his case during the public comment section at a school board meeting.

Board members listened, but only one indicated an interest in such a meeting.

Prior to the November election, commissioners agreed that County Manager Lee Smith and Chairman John Bell would meet with Schools Superintendent Dr. Steve Taylor and then-Chairman Eddie Radford.

One of Keen's first actions after being named chairman when Republicans gained control of the board in November was to renew the push to schedule the joint session.

Keen has been particularly interested in the schools' facilities plan. However, the school board in early January voted to retain the projects remaining on its 2007 $103 million prioritized facilities plan.

During that meeting, school officials said that over the years commissioners have failed to adequately funded schools.

What could color Friday's meeting is a state Senate bill filed last week that would allow county commissions statewide to unilaterally take control of all school property and construction.

The bill was one of a slate of legislative goals adopted by the North Carolina Association of Counties, which was later endorsed by commissioners.

Keen did not return a call for comment on the proposal, but in an email, said he would not comment on whether or not the issue might be discussed Friday.

He also would not comment as to whether he or the board would support the bill.

"This is a very complex issue and an answer at this time would be purely speculative and not appropriate being that we have not discussed it openly at our commissioners' meeting," he said.

However, Grantham, who earlier expressed opposition to the bill, said that just because the topic is not on the agenda doesn't mean it won't be mentioned.

"I have heard about it, and obviously our board is opposed to it," Grantham said. "I think most school boards are. I am not sure, but I think part of it came from something to do with being able to obtain financing. That is really not applicable to anything that we are doing right now. I don't see any need to change it myself. From talking with my board members, I don't think anybody on our board is in favor of it."

Grantham said the school board also has not commented on the proposal publicly.

"We have discussed it a little bit, not as a board, but in general conversation, and I don't think anyone is for it," he said. "I don't think our commissioners are in favor of it because there is a lot that goes with it. When you assume the buildings you assume the maintenance and the maintenance staff. I think (the commissioners) have about all they need on their plate."