Group seeks Durham election change

Durham Realtors pan school board

Staff WriterMay 21, 2005 

Local real estate brokers say the notoriously rowdy disputes at school board meetings are making it harder to sell houses in Durham.

To help the panel get along better, the Durham Regional Association of Realtors wants to change how Board of Education members are elected. A citizens' group that helped oust former City Manager Marcia Conner is also collecting signatures to change school board elections.

"We love Durham," said Tony Craver, the president of the Realtors. "Our job is to sell Durham. But then you get all the circus stuff going on down there, and it hurts the city's image. It's chaos. They're bringing personal agendas to the school board meetings when the children should be the agenda."

The school board meetings have become must-see cable-access TV for many in Durham, and segments are replayed on the local 11 p.m. news. Board members often trade personal jabs, and two recently stormed out after the majority approved what had become a controversial public comment policy. On April 28, police hauled three members of the audience off to jail.

Currently, the county is divided into six school board districts, with only one seat elected by an at-large vote. The arrangement is a compromise forged in 1992, when the mostly white county schools merged with the largely black city system. The district lines were drawn with an eye toward ensuring that there would be a balance of power between the races, with the at-large seat often determining a majority.

In practice, critics contend, the districting plan has led to widespread discontent and frequent 4-3 votes down racial lines -- with seemingly every controversial issue sparking a heated battle.

The Realtors support putting an issue on the November ballot that would keep the requirement that candidates for a particular seat live within the boundaries of the current districts. But those candidates would then stand for election in a countywide vote.

Board member Jackie Wagstaff, a frequent critic of schools Superintendent Ann Denlinger, said the Realtors' effort is aimed at booting her off the board. Wagstaff is black and represents a largely black district.

"This is a slap in the face for race relations in this city," Wagstaff said Friday. "I am a product of my constituents. It is not the place of some white folks on the other side of town to tell 10,000 people that they didn't elect the right person."

Craver strongly denied Wagstaff's charge that the Realtors are motivated by race.

"The only color we care about is green," he said.

There are two ways to get the proposed change before voters on the November ballot.

< A majority of the school board could approve a referendum asking the Durham County Board of Commissioners to hold a countywide vote on the issue.

< The other is for a petition containing the verified signatures of 10 percent of the county's registered voters to be sent to the commissioners by June 30.

In either case, the issue would have to survive an up or down vote by the county board to appear on the ballot.

Durham Citizens for Accountable Government, which led a petition drive to oust Durham's city manager last year, is already trying to collect the more than 15,000 signatures needed to make the school board districting change.

"We're going to get more [signatures] than we need," group founder Charlotte Woods said. "What we want here is to bring about representation for all the citizens. ... If I could wave a magic wand and have seven white school board members tomorrow, I wouldn't do it. We want African-Americans on the school board. I just want those representatives to behave in a manner that can serve as a role model for our children."

The petition wouldn't be needed, however, if the school board votes to make the change itself.

"It's a wonderful idea," said board Vice Chairwoman Regina George-Bowden, who is black. "I would vote for it. It would be an exciting change for Durham. And if that doesn't work, then the state of North Carolina needs to come in and take over the whole school system, from the superintendent to the board."

Despite the opposition, Wagstaff said she isn't worried if the measure gains approval. Her current term expires in June 2006.

"I have a strong enough base I'll get re-elected anyway," Wagstaff said.

Staff writer Michael Biesecker can be reached at 956-2421 or mbieseck@newsobserver.com.

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