07/31/13 — Talking schools; clearing the air

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Talking schools; clearing the air

By Steve Herring
Published in News on July 31, 2013 1:46 PM

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Wayne County School Board Chairman John Grantham, left, and Wayne County Commission Chairman Steve Keen listen to comments during Tuesday’s joint meeting called to discuss facilities and funding. School board members questioned commissioners as to why they had developed their own school plan without first talking to them since the school board already has a plan it wants to complete.

Wayne County's school facilities took a back seat for a while Tuesday to an airing of bruised feelings and comments that hinted of lingering mistrust between the county Board of Education and the county Board of Commissioners.

School board members questioned why commissioners had their own school facilities plan -- a plan they said they were unaware of until discussion surfaced at a recent commission meeting.

They also asked what action by the school board had prompted the commissioners to decide to develop their own plan and to question the board's capabilities.

"We have done everything you have asked of us," school board member Dr. Dwight Cannon said.

School board members said "personal politics" need to stop, as do "sideline deals" and closed-door meetings between some of their own members and commissioners.

Commissioners also were questioned about how Wayne County had been included on a failed General Assembly bill that would have given control of school facilities to commissioners, even though the school board had adopted a resolution opposing the legislation.

But despite the exchanges, the two sides agreed that the meeting called to talk about facilities had cleared the air and in doing so had hopefully paved the way for better communications.

The five-hour retreat held at Lane Tree Golf Club produced no decisions on school facilities, but did set the stage for a follow-up meeting on Oct. 8.

Commissioner John Bell, who said no action could be taken until a clearer financial picture emerged, suggested County Manager Lee Smith and the county financial department staff and their counterparts in the school system meet with Davenport and Associates, the consulting firm that assists the county in financial planning.

Bell said the meetings would provide a better picture of what the financial needs are, while offering options as well. The results of that meeting would then be presented during the next joint session, he said.

Commissioner Ray Mayo said Davenport has a long history with the county and that commissioners have to "see the big picture" and not just schools.

"The key is that the final decision is going to have to be on the county commissioners," he said.

"Is that why you came up with your own plan for Grantham (School)?" school board member Rick Pridgen asked.

"I can't answer that. I don't think so," Mayo said.

"It is not our plan," Commission Chairman Steve Keen said.

"I beg your pardon, you said in your meeting on several occasions, Mr. Chairman, that 'This is our plan. This is our plan,'" Pridgen said.

Keen told Pridgen he was wrong.

"You know that I am not wrong," Pridgen said. "Go back and watch your meeting. You said it."

Keen said the Grantham School project had been a year behind other proposed school projects, but had been moved up by commissioners.

"Perhaps that is where you got confused, Mr. Pridgen, is that we wanted Grantham to be just as much a part of the first three (projects) and it wouldn't get lost in the shuffle," Keen said.

Commissioners have suggested Grantham School be modeled after a facility in Johnston County.

"You did not include the school board, nor did you ask any questions why we had chosen a middle school or anything else," Pridgen said "That was wrong. Even one of the county commissioners at that meeting stated, 'This not the way we should be handling this. We should be having dialogue with the school board.' My only hope in the future, if you guys come up with your own plan, that before you go voting on something, that you would share it with us. We will be glad to go take a look at that school. We will be glad for you to go take a look at the schools that we come up with in this plan that we have worked on for 10 years.

"We will be glad to talk about our differences and why we feel like it needs to be done the way it should be done. Then, if we can come to some kind of consensus, that is fine, but do not expect us to come into a meeting like this feeling like we are not backed into a corner already because your lack of communication. Your lack of communication with us before we move forward on this is not hurting me, it is hurting the kids of this county and the citizens of this county."

Keen said he had been talking with school board Chairman John Grantham.

Mayo said commissioners had made it clear that the school design was a suggestion only.

"We do have that right if we fund (the schools)," Mayo said. "We have that right if we are going to fund it. Nobody is saying it is our plan."

Pridgen said the school board had asked to discuss the legislative school bill, which was originally filed concerning Wake County Schools, only to find out Wayne County had been added to it.

Mayo said the commissioners knew nothing about the addition.

"None of us did until after the fact," Mayo said. "We made it clear that we did not know, that we would not support it, and we didn't."

Grantham said he didn't know which, if any, commissioners knew about the county being added to the bill. He said he had relayed the school board's opposition to the bill to state Sen. Louis Pate.

He said Pate told him he understood that the county commission was "100 percent in favor" of the bill.

"Somebody is putting out false information," Grantham said. "I don't know who it is."

Keen said he could answer the question since he "was the target."

Grantham told Keen he was not saying he was the target.

As a voting member of the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, Keen said he had voted for the association's legislative goals that had included the school bill, which would allow commissioners the option of taking over school facilities in counties where school boards could not afford the facilities. It would have been an optional decision and would allow school boards to concentrate on education.

"That is all that I had to do with voting that day," he said.

Keen said Pate told him he had put it on the list.

Keen said he asked Pate why he had done so without talking to commissioners, and that Pate's response was that he thought it would help the school situation in Wayne County.

Cannon said that the school system is in good shape, but that commissioners had made the school board look inept. He also questioned why Keen had referred to the board as "slack."

"Now you are telling us you based it upon what somebody else said," Cannon said. "We are not coming together because you all have already have had your meetings."

"We have a right," Mayo started.

"And we have a right to get money that is earmarked for the schools," Cannon said. "So why should we have to beg for you to give us part of that $13 million (in school funds)? It belongs to us."

Commissioners aren't denying the funds, but are going to handle them responsibly, Mayo said.

"If you are doing it responsibly you might have to go through the legal system, too," Cannon said. "We know our rights, too."