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Thursday, March 21, 2013

Raleigh Chamber comes down against county commission

Posted by on Thu, Mar 21, 2013 at 5:17 PM

In defending county commissioner’s hostile takeover of school ownership, commission chair Joe Bryan recently told INDY Week that the measure had widespread support, going back years.

He was quick to say the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce had pushed such a proposal in the mid-2000’s—as if the Chamber’s blessing signals that all reasonable people should agree.

But yesterday, the Raleigh Chamber’s endorsment didn’t mean quite as much to Bryan.

The Chamber wants both bills that have come as a result of the commissioner’s legislative agenda—one that would redraw Wake County school board districts and another that would transfer school ownership to the commissioners—to be quashed.

Bryan’s response: “It’s a little late in the day for the Chamber, and they’re not presenting much,” Bryan told the News and Observer.

How convenient.

In a February interview with INDY Week, Bryan put far more stock in the Chamber’s opinion.

“If you look back to 2006, I think it was the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce that said commissioners should have the authority to build, own, and maintain the schools,” Bryan said. “These views are generally representative of the business community and also the education community.”

I’ve interviewed Bryan twice in the past month about the county commission’s legislative agenda regarding the school board, which many have called a “power play.”

On both occasions, he earnestly defended the agenda as nothing more than good policy.

Bryan argues that it makes sense for county commissioners to own the schools, since county commissioners have to ask for tax dollars. Fair enough.

He also argues that people in Wake County deserve to be able to vote in more than one school board race. That also makes sense, even though the gerrymandered districts that legislators have come up with do not.

The point that Bryan wouldn’t take on is that regardless of whether or not the measures are good policy in a vacuum, the political reality of Wake County also comes into play.

Political reality number one: the county commissioners and school board members, more or less, hate each other.

Any time one body asks the legislature to change the power dynamic between the two boards, without getting the other board’s agreement, that amounts to a sort of power grab, no matter how pure your intentions.

Political reality two: several key issues, which don’t factor into Bryan’s arguments, indirectly hang in the balance. The school board is currently working on a new student assignment plan and both boards are supposed to agree on a new construction bond.

One of the bills, as I have previously written about, has the potential to completely upend the new assignment plan. That’s something the business and education communities in Wake County can almost undoubtedly agree on: more student assignment chaos.

Let’s be clear on another point. The Chamber is a very moderate organization, and doesn’t always come down on the side of the Democratic-controlled school board. The Chamber, for instance, was vehemenently opposed to former superintendent Tony Tata’s firing.

Bryan’s “good policy” argument is somewhat compelling. But when he cites an organization or disavows it based on whatever suits his agenda—well, that sounds more like politics.

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