Mecklenburg County commissioners say they would likely seize control of school construction and property a move that the schools are resisting if state legislation giving them the power is approved.
Mecklenburg County commissioners Chairwoman Pat Cotham said theres bipartisan support on that panel to take the opportunity the state legislature is expected to offer, with a Senate bill giving all counties the option of taking over ownership and maintenance of schools.
I think it would be good for the taxpayers, Cotham said. The schools will adjust.
But Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders argue that they have a successful track record.
Superintendent Heath Morrison, who started in July, says buildings are an essential part of the districts vision for improving education. He and the school board are working on a 10-year construction and renovation plan, which they plan to unveil March 26.
The facilities have to be absolutely part of the academic program. You cannot separate it, Morrison said Wednesday after leading a media tour of the under-construction replacement for McClintock Middle School.
Because schools tend to be focal points of neighborhoods, decisions about the location of new schools and the priority for revamping old ones tend to be emotional and political. Millions of tax dollars are at stake, with schools consuming the lions share of county debt.
The school board, county commissioners and top staff of both bodies met for more than two hours Wednesday to talk about the 2013-14 budget. No one brought up the topic of who should control construction, even though both groups are discussing it separately.
One thing was clear: Even if CMS remains in charge, the political and financial landscape has changed dramatically since voters signed off on $517 million in school construction projects in 2007. The county will play a stronger role in setting priorities, and money will be tighter.
When we went into the Great Recession, we were spending money at an astronomical rate, County Manager Harry Jones told CMS officials. Restraints created to cope with the recession arent going away, he said.
Meck likes Wake plan
Senate Bill 236, which would let county commissioners across North Carolina take control of school construction, originated with a dispute between commissioners and the school board in Wake County. It authorizes county commissioners to assume responsibility for some or all of owning, siting, acquiring, constructing, equipping, expanding, improving, repairing, and renovating school district property.
The bill, which passed the Senate on a first reading, is expected to become law.
Currently, CMS does the planning for new schools and renovations. But because school districts dont have taxing authority, CMS leaders must go to the county for financing. When voters approve bonds, the county borrows the money and passes it to CMS, which owns and maintains the schools and properties.
Cotham, who was elected in November, said she learned about the proposed change in January, at an N.C. Association of County Commissioners meeting. She said she likes the idea that if a school is no longer needed, the county could use, sell or lease it.
We paid for those buildings, said Cotham, a member of the Democratic majority. It just makes sense. A lot of the commissioners are supporting this.
Commissioner Bill James, a Republican, agrees.
When school boards are done with the building and land, counties have to pay schools for the value of the land and building A SECOND TIME, James emailed shortly after the bill was introduced. He said taking control of the buildings would let the county outsource school maintenance.
More than buildings
CMS leaders are gearing up a Promises Made, Promises Kept campaign to make the case that theyve been good stewards of taxpayers investment and that schools are more than just buildings.
On the media tour of McClintock, where a 1955 building will be demolished and replaced with a $25 million new school, Morrison and Chamberlain emphasized how the building has been designed to promote safety, discipline, up-to-date technology and a math/science/engineering focus, with science labs centrally located.
At Tuesdays school board meeting, district leaders discussed how to rank projects for a 10-year construction and renovation plan, with the possibility of a November bond vote. Morrison and some board members said whatever issues sparked the push for change in Raleigh dont apply in Charlotte.
CMS construction planning got off to a rocky start last month when the school board unanimously approved a plan to spend $33.7 million on fences, cameras and other school safety upgrades, only to withdraw it three days later when members learned it would delay 2007 school bond projects. Morrison said CMS leaders didnt fully understand the annual borrowing limits the county imposes.
A revised plan, totaling $21.5 million and lacking the controversial eight-foot fences, will be voted on March 26, Morrison said.
On Wednesday, county officials reminded CMS about the debt limits, saying they will affect the pace of future construction.
Before the recession, Mecklenburg County was borrowing $250 million to $300 million a year for CMS and other county projects, such as parks, libraries, jails and Central Piedmont Community College. Now the limit is closer to $140 million, commissioner Dumont Clarke said, and CMS cant expect to claim all of that.
Near the end of Wednesdays two-hour budget meeting, commissioner Trevor Fuller said both bodies should discuss dissonance between the way CMS and the county prioritize construction projects. Others agreed, and said there will be a follow-up meeting.
But no one brought up Senate Bill 236 and the questions it raises.
When the Observer asked Cotham about it afterward, she said she had expected CMS to raise the issue. She said she, Jones, Morrison and school board Chairwoman Mary McCray had lunch this week, and no one from CMS mentioned it then, either.
I just think we need to look at different ways to save money, Cotham said.