The Wake County School Board has filled one empty seat — just in time for another opening.
The seven remaining members of the Wake County Board of Education voted Tuesday to place Tom Benton into Chris Malone’s vacant District 1 seat. Malone left the board when he was elected to the North Carolina House of Representatives.
Benton, a Democrat, was one of applicants for the job. The a former teacher and school administrator is a 27-year resident of Eastern Wake County.
Wake County School Board members will now go through the seat-filling process again, this time with Debra Goldman’s District 9 position. Just days before applicants interviewed for Malone’s seat, news spread that Goldman had transferred her voting registration to Wilkes County. By state law, public officials must be able to vote for the position they hold. Goldman officially announced her resignation Friday.
“We will obviously start the same process that we just went though in filling the District 1 seat in filling the District 9 seat,” said Board Chair Keith Sutton. “It’s taken us just slightly over a month, I think, the timeline for filling the District 9 seat will be about the same. I think by the second meeting of March will be wrapping that process up.”
While the board is technically nonpartisan, most members were backed either by Republicans or Democrats in their candidacy, and tend to vote along party lines. With Malone and now Goldman’s departures, those leaning Republican find themselves even more outnumbered on a sometimes bitterly divided board.
School Board Considering Lobbyist to Bat Against County Commission
Meanwhile, board members Tuesday expressed interest in hiring a lobbyist to protect their control over the school system.
Wake County Commissioners last month approved their 2013 legislative goals, which include taking control of the oversight of school sites and buildings. Commissioners also want to change the way school board members are elected, creating five districts instead of nine and having four seats elected on an at-large basis.
The question then becomes what role the Commissioners’ decisions will have in the Board of Education’s ability to enact its own policies.
After a closed session, Sutton suggested a lobbyist could defend the school board’s role as the body that makes those decisions.
“In order to effectively respond to these proposals, I feel that our school system needs to act expeditiously to retain the services of a lobbyist,” he said. “I think that we need to be in the best position to defend ourselves and maintain what is in the best interest of students, families and schools in Wake County.”
Sutton said that the power to retain a lobbyist falls under a provision that gives the Superintendent ability to hire outside assistance to present its views to the state legislature. Sutton further made a point that Acting Superintendent Steven Gainey did not ask for this, but as the largest school district in the state, the implications of these potential changes reach far beyond Wake County.
“We have no choice but to be defensive,” said Board Member Susan Evans. “I wish it weren’t the case, but it is the case.”
Just minutes after his selection, Benton also weighed in on the Commissioner’s actions.
“I was a Social Studies teacher, and I remember teaching the students the advantages of electing at-large members,” he said. “If there’s good debate about it … but right now it’s moving so fast there’s not debate.”
The school board is setting aside $100,000 from its savings in the fund balance to pay a lobbyist.
The debate about control over school decisions is likely to flare up regularly during the next few months as Commissioners and Board of Education members work together to produce a plan for a new schools construction bond.
The last bond passed by Wake County voters provided more than $1 billion dollars for school improvement and construction.