GREENSBORO — The Guilford County Board of Commissioners authorized enough money last week to fix structural problems at Gateway Education Center and to embark on a new era of career training.
But the approval process leading to that $7.1 million authorization Thursday evening was "not an easy decision," as Commissioner Jeff Phillips put it in something of an understatement.
It followed sharp debate, criticism of too much deferred maintenance by school officials and skepticism about how thoroughly the Guilford County Board of Education has thought through its Career and Technical Education, or CTE, initiative.
Parts of the outcome defied partisan loyalties, pitting Democrat against Democrat, Republican against Republican.
The commissioners ultimately decided 7-1 to underwrite the school board's complete plan, but not before a 4-4 vote nixed by the thinnest of margins Commissioner Justin Conrad's motion to supply only $1.9 million of the school system's request and earmark it exclusively for Gateway, a school on East Wendover Avenue that educates students with special needs.
The sticking point for Conrad and other board skeptics was the rest of the school system's petition seeking $5.2 million in bond money to outfit Career and Technical Education academies at five schools.
"What we're being asked to do tonight is to move $5.2 million to a new proposal, a new program," Conrad said of the CTE initiative. "Why, friends, would we consider moving forward with a new project?
"This proposal will not fix the Page (High School) cafeteria problem. This proposal will not fix our tornado-damaged schools. Students at Northwest and others throughout Guilford County will wake up tomorrow and go to school in trailers that are 20-plus years old."
He likened the situation to that of a homeowner trying to buy a car despite being unable to make their mortgage payment.
He and other commissioners said they enthusiastically support the CTE program with its focus on readying students for high-wage, highly-skilled occupations that do not always require a college degree.
But they said the timing was all wrong, given a to-do list of $1.5 billion in repairs and other needed school improvements identified by outside consultants in a study completed earlier this year.
Commissioner Melvin "Skip" Alston saw the situation through an entirely different lens. He argued that maintenance deficiencies stemmed at least partly from what he considered to be the Republican-led commission's penny-pinching approach to government in recent years.
After learning from officials present at Thursday's meeting that the school board is seeking $12 million next budget year for capital projects that include much-needed repairs, Democrat Alston told Republican Conrad that he could support the Gateway-only idea if Conrad would endorse the school system's complete capital request.
He said Conrad should "put his money where his mouth is."
"So I'm assuming he would be a positive vote for your $12 million," Alston said to the school officials. "But I would think not, because we don't have $12 million in order to give when we've been cutting taxes, reducing taxes over three of the past four years, just giving the money back when we really need it."
Alston said the Conrad motion overstepped reasonable limits on commission authority by trying to "micromanage" the affairs of "an elected board just like we are."
Conrad countered that the commissioners exercised control over the county's purse strings for a reason, not to be "a rubber stamp."
Capital spending is the cash that governments and businesses use to buy, improve or maintain such physical assets as property, buildings and equipment.
The school board is an independent body, but like other arms of county government, the county commissioners control access to funds.
Conrad said he could not pledge to support the schools' $12 million capital request without having seen it or the county's proposed budget, which County Manager Marty Lawing did not release until later that night.
Noting that some of Alston's constituents had spoken about the school system's maintenance and repair shortcomings earlier in the meeting, Conrad asked a question: "How do you think that moving $5 million to a completely new endeavor is helping a situation that even your constituents here tonight were talking about?"
Alston said his constituents want the school system's CTE program, which offers training in such areas as computer science, biomedical technology, advanced manufacturing and transportation logistics that could lead to lucrative careers.
"So the question is, will you support the $12 million?" asked Alston, who served as the commission chairman when the board had a Democratic majority. "Well, again, Mr. Conrad, I know you and I know this board: You will not be voting for $12 million.
"Fool me. Prove me wrong. I hope that I'm wrong."
Lawing's proposed budget, made public toward the close of Thursday's meeting, would give the schools about half of the requested amount, setting aside roughly $6.1 million for "capital maintenance and repair" in next year's spending plan to take effect July 1.
That would be an increase of about $116,530 — just less than 2 percent above the school system's 2018-19 budget.
But the manager's proposal is an initial script scheduled for review in a series of meetings starting later this month, during which commissioners will reshape his recommendation into a final document that can win majority support. So Thursday's proposal might not be the last word on the capital allotment next year.
Conrad and other commissioners said Thursday evening they support asking voters about the larger question of the school system's total needs in a future bond referendum.
Guilford voters last faced such a referendum in 2008, when they approved a school facilities bond of $457 million.
The pivotal vote Thursday night came on Conrad's motion, when three Republicans and Democrat Commissioner Kay Cashion supported giving school leaders only the $1.9 million necessary for Gateway repairs and withholding CTE approval for further review.
Republican Alan Branson, who chairs the commissioners, and GOP Commissioner Alan Perdue joined Cashion in backing Conrad's motion.
"For me, this is a matter of principle that these funds were approved by the public for capital improvements," Perdue said. "I get phone calls. I get emails. I get in conversations about the condition of school buildings that are existing and continue to go unrepaired."
But Republican Commissioners Phillips and Hank Henning joined Democrats Alston and Commissioner Carlvena Foster in voting against the Gateway-only concept, creating the 4-4 split.
Democrat Commissioner Carolyn Coleman was not present at Thursday's meeting. Under the rules of order followed by the commission, a tie vote ranks as a denial.
Cashion said her votes Thursday against the school board proposal — she also cast the lone vote against the commission's eventual 7-1 approval — stemmed from the system's handling of both the CTE program and basic school maintenance.
"It has caused division in the community and people say, 'I don't want my money to be taken from my children to support a new program when things have not been taken care of,'" Cashion said.
She also was leery of the school board's decision to redirect leftover construction money from projects at some schools where work had been completed under-budget to equip CTE academies elsewhere.
"I really feel that money should have stayed there ... and be put to other uses at those same places," she said.
The votes took place midway through a long agenda Thursday. But if they needed it, commissioners got early notice of the importance their constituents attach to local schools during the public comment period at the start of the meeting.
About 10 parents of students at Gateway and several other schools took to the podium to urge support for school improvements.
"We should all be ashamed," Gateway supporter Addy Jeffrey said. "All of our children deserve well-maintained schools."