Reassignment suit echoes Wake's past

Staff WriterApril 24, 2007 

The case: Upset Wake County parents turn to the courts to block what they consider an arrogant and out-of-control school board's student assignment plan.

Think it's about last week's court hearing by parents trying to block the reassignment plan that converts 22 schools to a year-round schedule?

Think again.

It's actually a lawsuit filed by parents in 1977 in response to reassignment changes created by the merger of the Raleigh City and Wake County school systems. The newest lawsuit is restoring attention to an all-but-forgotten chapter in Wake school history.

"They're still busing people all around the place," said Carol Newcomb, one of the parents who sued in 1977. "If it were still county schools, it wouldn't be happening."

Like in 1977, the school system is arguing that parents failed to go through the proper channels and appeal their assignments before suing. Wake is citing the 30-year-old case in hopes of getting the same result -- a dismissal.

In 1977, there was bitterness about the recent merger of the two school systems. Parents in the county schools opposed it. Opposition had been especially strong in northeast Raleigh, which was part of the county schools.

The plan called for moving some white, suburban students to downtown Raleigh schools and for some black, Southeast Raleigh students to go to North Raleigh schools.

The school system's plan won approval from federal civil rights officials who were monitoring the integration efforts.

"The Board of Education, as constituted at the time, believed in the necessity of assigning students to schools to just achieve some level of racial integration," said state Sen. Vernon Malone, the school board chairman in 1977.

The reassignment changes prompted more than 60 parents, mostly from northeast Raleigh, to file a class-action lawsuit to block the plan. They were joined by some parents from Southeast Raleigh and the Swift Creek area.

"Why should our child be bused across town when there's a great school in the neighborhood?" said Sandy Roberson, whose husband, Dan, had been the spokesman for Wake County Citizens for Equal Education, the group that filed the lawsuit.

What the '77 suit says

In the lawsuit, the parents accused the school system of overstepping its legal authority by busing for racial balance. They asked for a permanent injunction against the reassignments, or at least that the plan be delayed for a year and that no elementary students be bused for racial purposes.

The lawsuit was dismissed because the parents hadn't exhausted the school system's process for appealing reassignment.

The school system is using the same argument in the most recent lawsuit by the parent group Wake CARES. Ann Majestic, the school board's attorney, noted that Wake CARES sued before the filing period began in May for parents to request transfers to get out of year-round schools.

But Patrice Lee, a co-founder of Wake CARES, said waiting to file the lawsuit would have allowed even less time to devise an alternative to year-round conversions.

"We didn't want to sue," Lee said. "We tried to work with them. We waited as long as we could."

While Wake CARES waits for the results of its lawsuit, Roberson said she and many other families in 1977 were satisfied because the school board in the end let them stay at their schools.

"All I could think about at that time was the welfare of my child," said Roberson, who now lives in Kansas with her husband.

Other families weren't as fortunate and were reassigned.

"All my children survived and got a good education," said Janet Weathersbee, one of the parents who sued in 1977.

Some things have changed in the past 30 years.

Instead of integrating schools by race, Wake uses family income.

The school board also backed away from assigning suburban students to inner-city schools. Instead, it began offering magnet programs at the inner-city schools to attract students.

But Malone said some things just don't seem to change.

"These things seem to come in 25- to 30-year cycles," Malone said. "Some of the people in North Raleigh and Cary want their own school system."

(News researchers Susan Ebbs and Lamara Williams-Hackett contributed to this report.)

Staff writer T. Keung Hui can be reached at 829-4534 or keung.hui@newsobserver.com.

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