The predicted fireworks over the 81 Act did not materialize Monday night as the Warren County Commission passed the resolution with a unanimous vote of 23-0 with one commissioner absent.
The measure passed with little discussion, even though it has generated some controversy among those who may be affected by the new system, which won’t go into effect until July 1, 2012.
The 81 Act creates a centralized purchasing committee for the county, the school system and the highway department. It will have no effect on county fee offices, like the trustee and county court clerk.
It will, however, have a major effect on the School Board and Warren County Highway Department, both of which will lose purchasing power on anything over $5,000, something School Board member Jeff Lee says is a concern.
“I do think it will make it harder for the School Board to do what’s necessary to give our children a better education,” Lee said.
There has been speculation Monday’s vote was a result of the School Board’s hiring of Durham School Services to handle the school’s transportation service, and the purchase of land for a new Morrison School, both of which generated controversy among county commissioners.
With the 81 Act, a seven-member central purchasing committee will be established which will include County Executive John Pelham, Director of Schools Dr. Jerry Hale, Road Superintendent Levie Glenn and four more members appointed by the commission at its meeting next month. These members can be pulled from the general public and may, or may not, be involved in county government.
When asked directly whether the Durham School Services contract would have been approved if the 81 Act had been in place, Pelham said he had no idea.
“It would have had to go through the purchasing committee because it was over $5,000,” Pelham said. “But there is no way of knowing if they would have approved it. We haven’t even appointed the members of that committee yet.”
But Pelham does agree the new system will allow the county more discretion over these types of expenditures.
“All we’re trying to do here is to make things run more efficiently,” Pelham said, noting that commissioners have mentioned travel as one of areas that concern them in the school system budget.
“There has been a tremendous amount of attention as far as the school system that’s been addressed to travel,” Pelham said. “And I really do not understand that.”
Pelham says he does think the purchasing committee will establish guidelines as to what kind of travel and training is necessary in order to provide a better education for students.
“I think we would have to find out first what that travel is, what it’s for, before we can say what our opinion on that would be,” Pelham said. “We can’t really say until we have more detail.”
Another concern for school system employees is the transfer of central office bookkeeping personnel to Warren County Administrative Offices, and whether any staff will be cut as a result. Once again, Pelham says this will depend on the director elected by the seven-member central purchasing committee.
“Once that director is appointed it is the duty of that director to hire the staff,” Pelham said, noting there is a possibility of cuts if the department has more employees than necessary.
“On the other hand, we could find bookkeeping is understaffed and hire more employees,” Pelham said. “We won’t know that until we get there.”
Dr. Hale says the school system is certainly willing to work with the county under the new purchasing system.
“Like I told the commissioners, we’ll do our best to try to make it work,” Hale said. “I don’t know enough about it yet to really say much about how it will affect us.”
Since Hale will automatically become one of the seven-member committee, as will Glenn, he feels the school system will still have a strong voice in the committee’s decisions.
“I certainly hope that will be the case,” Hale said. “We need to do what is best for the education of the children of Warren County.”
Hale did note there is a statute that allows the state Commissioner of Education to pull the school system out of the 81 Act if it turns out to be detrimental to that goal.
“What a lot of commissioners don’t realize is the School Board has a lot of accountability to the state and the federal government, which is where most of the funds come from,” Hale said. “So if it does cause a problem with education our recourse is to go and petition him to have us removed.”