Proposed new state legislation that grants county commissioners the authority to assume ownership of public school properties might not change who owns these facilities in Ashe County, according to local school and county officials.
Senate Bill 236, currently working its way through the N.C. Senate, is entitled “an act authorizing counties to assume responsibility for construction, improvement, ownership and acquisition of public school property.”
Aware of the legislation, Ashe County Board of Commissioners Chairman Larry Rhodes is cool on the proposed change in school ownership.
“I would not vote to take it over,” said Rhodes.
“I think the way it has been done has provided the students and parents with great learning facilities; yes, we have to take a hard look at our Middle School. My vote would be to continue as is,” said Rhodes in an email to the Post. “You know my saying, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
According to Ashe County Manager Dr. Pat Mitchell, the county currently pays for the capital needs for school construction projects, and during the construction, the county owns the property. Once a school project has been paid for, the board of commissioners deed the property to the board of education.
If S.B. 236 passes through state government and is approved by the Ashe County Board of Commissioners through a resolution, the county would maintain ownership of school properties after they have been paid for.
“Commissioners would be more involved in the construction of new school properties, and they will continue to own them (the properties),” said Mitchell. She also said “I don’t see any changes for the student population at all.”
Mitchell highlighted one section from the legislation while discussing S.B. 236.
“This section applies only in a county that elects by resolution to assume responsibility for some or all of owning, siting, acquiring, constructing, equipping, expanding, improving, repairing and renovating property for use by a named school administrative unit located wholly within the county,” reads the legislation.
According to Mitchell, the “some or all” phrasing means the board of commissioners can potentially pick and choose which aspects of school development projects they would like to be involved in.
The bill also says “the county shall consult the board of education in the siting, design, construction, equipping, expansion, improvement, or renovation of the property.” The school board can offer advice about where to build a school upon the BOC’s consultation, but ultimately, the final decision would rest with the commissioners if the resolution for the bill is approved.
According to Mitchell, the Ashe County Board of Commissioners have not discussed the legislation, but the commissioners are aware of the new bill.
“Any time the General Assembly grants power to the board of commissioners,” said Mitchell, “I think those members will take a look at it and choose whether they will have a discussion about it.”
The Ashe County Board of Education has also come out against the new legislation.
“Our board wants to keep control of our buildings and our assets,” said Interim Superintendent Donnie Johnson.
To voice their disapproval of S.B. 236, the Ashe County Board of Education submitted a resolution of opposition to this district’s representatives and the county manager’s office on March 4, 2013.
“The Ashe County Board of Education opposes any proposed legislation that would authorize counties to assume control of school property and respectfully requests that the N.C. General Assembly opposes any such legislation during its 2013 session,” concluded the resolution.
The legislation was originally prompted by a conflict between the Wake County Board of Commissioners and the Wake County school board, and has now sparked debate in all 100 counties.
“Maybe some counties have a problem between school and commissioner’s boards; I don’t feel Ashe does,” said Rhodes.
N.C. House District 93 Rep. Jonathan Jordan said he supports giving commissioners the option to assume ownership of school properties, but he would like to study the bill further.
“It seems to me that if a county commission wished to pursue such responsibility, since the commissioners have the taxing authority, it could be an efficiency argument or unified authority argument; combining operating responsibility with the taxing responsibility,” said Jordan.
“Unless I hear good arguments from both the school side and the county commissioners side against it, I would tend to support it. It is, after all, just an option that no county commission is forced to assume.” said Jordan.