Commissioners, black leaders meet to clear air

The Charlotte Observer
Richard Rubin
Nov 28, 2002

Republican Mecklenburg County commissioners and black leaders met behind closed doors Wednesday, seeking detente in a political brouhaha over school bonds.

The result: better rapport and probably a delayed decision on how much school and county bonds should be sold in January. Several who attended the nearly two-hour meeting said the healthy discussion showed both sides' willingness to cooperate.

"I was very impressed, favorably impressed, with the nature, scope and tone of the meeting and feel very positive that we're moving in the right direction," said Wilhelmenia Rembert, vice chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. "We sought clarity on a lot of levels, and I think we were able to achieve clarity on a lot of issues."

Republicans, who will take control of the Board of County Commissioners on Monday, faced blistering criticism last week over their support for a bond-sale scheduling plan that saves money and doesn't delay projects but lacks commitment to the amount of 2004 funding school officials want.

The discussion stems from a testy debate at the Nov. 19 commissioners' meeting.

County staffers recommended issuing $233 million for 12 months' worth of county and school construction, instead of the $369 million for 18 months they had previously planned and that Democrats supported.

All the bond money voters have approved in recent years will be spent. Commissioners, however, must decide when to convert the bonds into cash to be spent on projects.

Under both plans, the school system would get about $11 million a month during 2003. Under the proposal that Republicans favor, however, Mecklenburg would save $6.8 million in interest next year - because the county wouldn't be sitting on money it doesn't plan to use until 2004.

But all that information wasn't final until the afternoon of the commissioners' meeting.

Meanwhile, black leaders had spent the prior weekend drumming up a crowd to denounce what they interpreted as a Republican effort to slow down school construction. The crowd didn't get the new information soon enough, and few who spoke seemed to understand the nuances.

They charged Republicans with racism and insulted individual commissioners.

Democrats passed the plan 5-4 that night, contending that the 12-month time period meant that there was no commitment for school projects in 2004.

But Republicans promised to bring the plan back for a vote in December, when their majority takes effect.

The issue is on Tuesday's meeting agenda but may get pushed back until the Dec. 17 deadline for a decision, so the leaders can continue talking, likely chairman Tom Cox said Wednesday.

Commissioner Ruth Samuelson said the group is trying to craft a resolution expressing commitment to future bond sales.

Among those in attendance Wednesday at First Baptist Church-West on Oaklawn Avenue: Republican commissioners Cox and Samuelson; Democratic commissioners Dumont Clarke and Norman Mitchell; state Rep. Pete Cunningham, D-Mecklenburg; school board members Arthur Griffin and Rembert; and County Manager Harry Jones, who helped organize the meeting.

The outcome could affect the Republicans' ability to govern effectively, Samuelson said.

"I think it has the potential to be tone-setting." she said, "And I think so far what we've indicated is: `Look, we were willing to come and talk and listen to what you had to say and try to find a way to address your concerns.' "

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