RALEIGH — Voters can pick from four different takes on busing for diversity and other hot topics in the quartet of candidates out to represent Garner, Fuquay-Varina and Willow Spring on the Wake County school board.
On the diversity and busing issues that throw the most heat in the countywide race, District 2 incumbent Horace Tart is part of the ruling Wake board majority for keeping school populations in balance based on family income.
Tart, the lone incumbent running for re-election, pins his bid on the work he's done in the past four years to improve schools in the area, plus a diverse background as a farmer, Marine, teacher and builder.
"I believe in a common-sense business approach," Tart said at a recent candidate forum.
Dissatisfaction with the county system's current nine-member board is driving at least one candidate for each of the four district seats on the Oct. 6 ballot. Other candidates, aligned with the current school board and administration, are fighting hard to maintain a diversity-driven approach they credit with creating good schools and a national buzz about Wake County.
In District 2, where one-time candidate Chris Augustine has stopped campaigning, those aiming to unseat Tart include:
Community volunteer Carlene Lucas, who supports diversity but doesn't want to bus students to achieve it.
John Tedesco, a Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Triangle vice president who's running an avowedly political campaign criticizing the current board for its diversity policies, poor graduation rates by low-income students and a perceived lack of responsiveness to parents.
Cathy Truitt, a consultant and retired educator who doesn't like forced student reassignments and wants more attention paid to research-tested means of improving schools' performance.
The district runs from the edges of Raleigh into the mostly rural areas that border on Johnston County and covers a mostly conservative constituency. The crowded field could result in a November runoff.
There are no Democrats running, so the flap over busing for diversity is playing out somewhat differently here with county Republicans endorsing Tedesco against other candidates who are also Republicans. In the other three district school board races, Democrats and Republicans are choosing sides, though school board elections are officially nonpartisan.
There's also an old Raleigh versus outer Wake dynamic at work; some parents charge that school board members haven't adequately addressed the needs of the fast-growing suburbs.
The youngest of the group at 34, Tedesco is pushing hard against the current Wake board, charging that it is dominated by retired educators, is out of step with a changing society and fails to address the needs of today's parents and students.
Tedesco, who grew up in foster homes, describes himself as uniquely qualified in several ways. He's equipped to deal with the challenge of educating low-income children, he says, because he was one himself.
"We have a school board that has been out of touch with families for some time," Tedesco said. "I think people want a different voice on the school board."
Tart says he's listening to constituents in his district; he just can't guarantee they will always get what they want.
In one example of his achievements in his first four-year term on the board, Tart points to a makeover of Smith Elementary in Garner, which had been low-achieving and has become a magnet school.
"That school is turning around and becoming a totally different school," he said.
Truitt -- a teacher, principal and educational consultant for nearly 40 years -- is leaning hard on her expertise in campaign appearances, literature and ads. Wake County should be paying attention to successful methods that other school systems have used to better prepare students for a changing world, she says.
"We need to be offering more math and sciences and we need to be offering more foreign languages," Truitt said at a campaign forum.
On the diversity issue, she opposes the current busing plan and is pushing for more stable schools and more magnets in District 2.
"I do not believe in forced reassignment; it is flawed," Truitt said.
Wake County schools have often been compared with those in the Charlotte and Mecklenburg County system, which stopped busing and wound up with a number of schools with high levels of minority students. Wake's philosophy is to improve the overall academic performance of each school by keeping any one school from having too high a percentage of low-income students.
Tedesco says he's willing to accept the likelihood that his favored approach of community schools would result in schools with large majorities of students from minority groups.
"That's only if we have a serious plan that's going to help those schools rise above and be competitive," he said. "In truth, when we fail to educate these kids, we are perpetuating poverty, and that's going to be the civil rights issue of the next generation."
Lucas dropped out of the race early this month but has resumed campaigning after an influx of campaign contributions. She cites her experiences in seeing her three children through Wake County schools' reassignment process.
"I, too, like many other parents, have filled out the transfer requests year after year," she said.
Lucas favors a continued focus on maintaining economic diversity among students but has researched an approach, "controlled choice," that she says works better than Wake County's busing method.
Under the controlled choice system, used by schools in Cambridge, Mass., and other districts, students are assigned to schools according to parents' preference, socioeconomic level and random lottery, according to Lucas' campaign literature.
"I believe that if we have neighborhood schools, they are going to be segregated," Lucas said, adding that schools that aren't diverse tend to teach students less and have a harder time attracting quality teachers.