Off to the races for Wake schools

Associate EditorAugust 2, 2009 

Not ever having taken Latin, I somewhere along the line still was clued in to the fact that all Gaul is divided into three parts. For the purposes of school board elections, all Wake County is divided into nine parts. And that's where things get interesting.

The county Board of Education has nine members. Each is elected by the voters of a specific district, districts that vary in character and to some extent in priorities. Which set of priorities will go to the top of the board's list, and how will that affect what goes on in the schools?

Terms on the board are for four years. The terms overlap, so alternating groups of seats are on the ballot every two years. In the elections to be held Oct. 6, four seats will be contested -- short of a majority, but still enough to make lots of people's hair stand on end with the possibility that there could be a big shift in the board's dynamics.

That's because in three of the districts, incumbents who have helped drive the board's policy train are stepping down and because candidates presenting themselves as change agents are likely to make a strong push.

They can be expected to tell parents in and around fast-growing areas what they think those parents want to hear -- that they can be, and should be, insulated from the reassignment of students as new schools come on line and also from efforts to keep schools anywhere in the county from becoming overloaded with kids from poor families.

What those candidates might not find it helpful to point out is that Wake's hot-spot communities wouldn't have become nearly as attractive to newcomers if it weren't for the Wake school system's sterling reputation, which has given the county a tremendous advantage in attracting jobs and residents.

The situation is made even more volatile by the resignations of two other veteran board members, whose replacements will be chosen within the next days and weeks by the board itself. When all the dust finally settles, it's certain that five of the nine seats will have changed hands -- meaning there's now a great big question mark as to what kind of consensus will emerge on the crucial issues surrounding public education in the state's largest school system.

If there's any single banner under which change-oriented candidates are likely to rally, it's that of "neighborhood schools." The phrase is classically warm and fuzzy, conjuring memories of schools that were neighborhood anchors, so close to where everybody lived that kids usually walked or rode their bikes. They might even have gone home for lunch. The kids across the tracks? That other school was for them.

That element of class segregation aside, it's a benign model, one to which families understandably aspire. Which is why the Wake system still assigns most students to schools relatively near their homes -- if not within walking distance, then close enough for convenience.

The exceptions tend to fall into three categories: 1) kids who have signed up, voluntarily, for a magnet school, where extra curriculum options are used to attract students to schools that otherwise would be underenrolled, 2) kids reassigned to help fill newly built schools, typically in outlying areas, or those who have been tapped to take the other kids' places at their old schools, and 3) kids moved around in the interests of keeping schools balanced between the rich (or middle class) and poor, a strategy whose advantages are academic, social and economic. Economic? Yes, it helps sustain property values throughout the county.

There's no point in downplaying the depth of resentment some families feel at having been, as they see it, jerked around. The school system hasn't helped itself with its insistence on sending some students to schools on a year-round calendar without parents giving the OK, even as it has honored most transfer requests. The school board clearly is sensitive to the importance of making reassignments less frequently. Its current three-year assignment plan is a conspicuous nod in that direction.

But what about candidates who would stoke that resentment while pledging to fix things that, from an overall county perspective, aren't broken in the slightest? What about the local Republican Party, which is opportunistically piling fuel on the fire?

The list of ways that school board decisions affect ordinary families is as long as your arm. Even people without children are affected because of budgets and the aura of communal success or failure that a school system imparts, depending on the kind of job it does.

The board's nine-district underpinning, with members accountable to their own set of voters, helps ensure that decisions are broadly based and reflect a full range of perspectives. In this campaign, there will be candidates echoing the grievances of vocal school critics whose perspective is not broad at all. Careful voters will think long and hard before permitting any such candidate to announce, as did Julius Caesar, "Veni, vidi, vici."

Editorial page editor Steve Ford can be reached at 919-829-4512 or at

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