2 Forsyth County commissioners object to funding fast track to replace schools

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Andrew Dye/Journal

FORSYTH COUNTY, N.C. — Forsyth County commissioners Gloria Whisenhunt and Walter Marshall during a meeting on Monday took exception to the idea that the county could be fast tracking $41.6 million in funding for school projects, an issue that the full board had not discussed yet.

Last Wednesday, school officials announced a plan to request $41.6 million from the county to replace Lowrance Middle School and Konnoak Elementary School and to update parts of several other schools. The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Board of Education is supposed to vote on the proposal Tuesday.

“They’ll have no problem,” Dave Plyler, the new chairman of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners, told the Journal on Friday. “I guarantee we have enough votes.”

The board has a new makeup this year, after former schools superintendent Don Martin and Democrat Ted Kaplan defeated conservative Republicans Mark Baker and Bill Whiteheart respectively in elections last year. The board still has a 4-3 Republican majority, but Plyler and Martin are considered to be moderate Republicans.

Plyler also told the Journal last week that the proposal would “in all likelihood” be on the agenda for the commissioners’ Jan. 26 meeting.

Whisenhunt and Marshall on Monday objected to the Jan. 26 date and how the information came out.

Martin, vice chairman of the board, said the school system had not made the request yet and that any request should follow normal meeting protocols. He led Monday’s meeting because Plyler was out of town.

Plyler could not be reached Monday for comment.

Whisenhunt brought the topic up, saying the board has a policy of discussing items at two briefings before voting. The commissioners have one briefing before the Jan. 26 meeting. The commissioners canceled this Thursday’s briefing because of a conference.

Whisenhunt also said she is concerned that this would not be a bond referendum that voters can approve.

“I’m extremely concerned that it’s on a fast track, that it should be slowed down, that the board should know far more than we know now,” Whisenhunt said.

She said after the meeting that she had heard rumors but did not know the specifics of the proposal until she read it in the newspaper.

Marshall said after the meeting that he found out about the proposal from reading the story in the Journal.

“How can it be a done deal when we’ve not even discussed it as a board?” he said.

He was vocal about his concerns in Monday’s meeting, saying he supports schools but asking why there was a need to hurry the projects.

“We as a body do our business on TV. Not behind (closed) doors,” Marshall said.

He also said the board will have to first deal with its 15-percent debt ceiling.

Last week, schools Superintendent Beverly Emory said school officials had recently met with Plyler, Martin and County Manager Dudley Watts to discuss ways to finance immediate needs.

“We’ve been asked to ask (for the financing), and that’s a good thing,” Emory said last week. “We’ll know by the end of the month, and then the wheels will start to turn.”

Martin said on Monday that in that meeting they heard reports about critical projects and that they told school officials if they want to make a request, to make a request.

“It’s premature to discuss any of that until we get it,” Martin said.

Whisenhunt said afterward that she is not saying she is opposed to the projects, but to the method of “how we have started the process.”

“We’ve got (budget workshops). Why not bring it up then? We’ve got a bond referendum to talk about for 2016. Why not add it to that bond? I just feel more comfortable if projects like this are voted on by the public,” Whisenhunt said.

While a school bond referendum could be on the table for 2016, the school district has been looking for a way to get the Lowrance and Konnoak projects funded before then.

The county would have to borrow money to finance the projects.

Commissioner Ted Kaplan said after Monday’s meeting that there are many facets to the issue, such as the board’s debt cap. He said he leans in favor of fixing those two schools, but the mechanics of it “would be a whole nother ball game.”

Commissioner Richard Linville said he had not been approached about the matter, but that he would be open to hearing more.

Commissioner Everette Witherspoon did not return a call for comment Monday night.

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