NC: Wake’s new commissioner says voters gave mandate for neighborhood schools

Posted on: November 8th, 2010 by Ned Barnett No Comments

Wake County’s new county commissioner, Phil Matthews, campaigned as a stout supporter of neighborhood schools, and he reads his victory last week as a statement that most voters in the county agree with him.

Matthews, a Republican and former member of the Garner Board of Alderman, defeated Democratic incumbent Lindy Brown Nov. 2 in a race that many saw as a referendum on the Wake school board’s new approach to school assignments.

“It was a true referendum. The people spoke. They want neighborhood schools,” Matthews said Monday.

The school board dropped diversity as a factor in assigning students to schools and now stresses proximity. Opponents of the change said it will create high minority populations in schools in low income areas. Supporters say “quota systems” create instability in assignments and were no longer necessary.

The election for four of the seven seats on the Board of County Commissioners became entangled with the neighborhood schools debate for two reasons. It was the first countywide election since four new members were elected to the school board last fall in district elections. The newcomers created a 5-4  majority that pushed through the change to neighborhood schools. Secondly, the commissioners approve part of the school system’s budget and its plans for new school construction.

Matthews, who is white, defeated Brown, who is black, but he said his election was not a reflection of racial issues that have surrounded the neighborhood schools debate. Some opponents, including the state NAACP, have said the school board majority is trying to “re-segregate the schools.”

Matthews said the race issue arose at a candidate forum and he felt “blindsided” by it. His concern, he said, is not the racial make-up of the schools, but the quality of them. He said they should all offer an equal chance for a good education.

“We need to make sure all the schools are equal and they have the same quality of teachers,” he said. “No matter what race you are, that should have nothing to do with it. Everybody should be treated equally. Period.”

Beyond neighborhood schools, the Board of Commissioners will be tested on issues of school growth. Most commissioners don’t support tax increases for schools, but the system, already the state’s largest with more than 143,000 students, expects to grow by another 60,000 students by the end of this decade.

Matthews is firm in his commitment to no tax increases and he wonders whether the school cost crunch will get as bad projected. He said a better economy could increase tax collections and the projected growth in students may be too high.

“Anything can happen,” he said, “That number may end up half that amount. They’re projecting ten years down the road.”

For now, Matthews said, the emphasis should be on controlling costs, not raising revenue.

“We’ve got to see what’s coming form the state and how we can trim things at the county level,” he said. “We’ll look at what the school board can do tighten their budget a little and then see how the economy plays out.”

As a commissioner, Matthews promises to take a fiscally conservative and pro-business stance. He is against impact fees for developers or tight controls on where they can build. He thinks it’s too early for light rail and favors the flexibility of adding buses. He is in favor of giving businesses tax incentives to come into the county and he wants to improve the climate for small businesses to grow.

When he takes his seat on Dec. 6, Matthews said stability — whether it be in school assignments or taxes — will be the commissioners’ theme.

“Businesses will realize we’re a good, stable group. They’re not going to be taxed to death. That should make homeowners happy, too,” he said. “We’re going to watch our spending and treat our county like a good business.”

(Photo: Facebook/Phil Matthews for Wake County Commissioner)

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