RALEIGH — After the General Assembly earlier this year failed to enact legislation that would shift control of school building construction and ownership from the school district to the county commission, the Wake County Board of Commissioners voted 4-3 Monday along partisan lines to approve an interlocal agreement with the Wake County Public School System to reach that same aim.
Debate on the measure grew sharp at times. Minority Democrats contended the pact would worsen existing tensions with the school board. Majority Republicans insisted they were not pursuing a power grab or an ultimatum, but instead attempting a joint effort to be prudent stewards of $983 million in school construction bonds.
A separate controversy emerged during the public comment period when Raleigh contractor Keith Harrod asserted that the school board “is completely ignoring both the letter and the spirit” of state statutes requiring a transparent competitive bidding process.
Republican Commissioner Tony Gurley defended the interlocal agreement. “This is not asking for any new legislative authority, this is simply a request to engage the school system under current legislative authority to allow the County Commission to cooperate with this program,” Gurley said.
“Our responsibility to the taxpayers is to get the best value for the money. We’re looking at spending almost $1 billion over the next few years. I believe that the taxpayers will be better served having two boards working together on this new construction program,” Gurley said.
Under the agreement, Gurley said, “the school board shall give due consideration to requesting the county by resolution to assume responsibility for some or all of the owning, siting, acquiring, constructing, equipping, expanding, improving, repairing, and renovating the property.”
In turn, the county would participate “only to the extent and under the terms and conditions requested by the school board,” Gurley said. “We are offering to cooperate with the school board.”
Such mutual cooperation was used in building the new Career and Technical Education high school named at Monday’s meeting for Vernon Malone, former state senator and ex-chairman of both the Wake County school board and county commission.
Democrat Caroline Sullivan said it is “a great idea” to have discussions with the Democrat-dominated school board, and they should cover not just construction but funding issues and teachers.
The process needs to be done with mutual respect and not unilaterally, as was the case when the commissioners went to the legislature, she said. That attempt “was unsuccessful, and I also think it was unhelpful, and it was not good for the community.”
Although she said she has “always been a proponent for doing local issues through interlocal agreements and not going to the legislature,” Sullivan said, “I’m uncomfortable with approving this interlocal agreement because it seems unilateral.”
Democrat James West said, “I fully agree with the ends,” while questioning “the means, and the methods, and the timing of this.”
West speculated the measure would produce “another stalemate, and you’re going to be taking potshots at each other through the media and all these kinds of things.”
Like her fellow Democrats, Commissioner Betty Lou Ward said the commissioners should have a deliberate strategy, go slowly, and meet with the school board to establish trust and good working relationships.
“The school board is not going to just flip over,” Ward said. “If you have concerns about how much money they’re spending talk to them, but don’t throw it down their throat.”
But Republican Commission Chairman Joe Bryan said he already broached the issue with Keith Sutton, school board chairman, and outgoing County Manager David Cooke had spoken to school Superintendent Jim Merrill. They asked that the measure be taken up at the school board’s Dec. 17 meeting.
“This is aspirational,” Bryan said. “We need to find a solution to this issue. This allows and moves it in that direction.”
Republican Paul Coble said the commissioners don’t “have the luxury of waiting three or four months to look at this. We’re not driving the timetable, the school board is. They put out an RFP (request for proposals) Nov. 8 for four or five new schools.”
He said the school board is “ready to move forward with that process. If we wait, we’re going to miss the opportunity to have an influence on the costs of those schools that are going to be built. We want to make sure we can get in and save the taxpayers some money.”
The interlocal agreement is the mechanism to stimulate cooperative talks, he said. But if they wait schools will be built “in a process that is probably going to be the most expensive process that can be used, and we’re not going to have the opportunity to save taxpayers money.”
That was a reference to Harrod’s concern about the bidding process being used.
“When only three companies can bid on building schools because of the way they wrote their contracts, there’s something wrong, and we need to look at that, and we need to bring it to the attention of the school board, and say that’s a problem,” Coble said.
Republican Phil Matthews also expressed unease about Harrod’s comments.
“I think from what I’m hearing we’ve got potentially a very serious issue,” Matthews said. “I don’t care where you’re coming from. We need to look into this and find out what’s going on.”
Harrod, president of Harrod & Associates Constructors, said the school board is using a construction management at-risk bidding process. Under that method, a selected firm serves as design and development consultant and general contractor during construction. Traditional construction is phased through separate bidding sequences of design, bid, and build.
“As far as can be determined, Wake County Public School System has not even considered the competitive bidding delivery method,” outlined in General Statutes, Harrod said. “Nor have they provided a detailed, fact-based explanation as to why construction management at risk provides financial benefits to the taxpayers of North Carolina as required by law.”
By soliciting only construction management at risk firms and writing very narrow criteria for which few North Carolina companies qualify, “It appears to me obvious that the Wake County Public School System is completely ignoring both the letter and the spirit of this law,” Harrod said.
While larger, more sophisticated projects may require a construction management at risk process, “it is not appropriate for each and every project. In fact construction management at risk was originally promoted to the legislature to meet the needs of unusual projects, certainly not the typical elementary school,” Harrod said.
Dan E. Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.