CARY — In District 9, it's all about the money.
Lois Nixon, a retired environmental educator, and Debra Goldman, a retired firefighter, are the only two candidates in the Wake County School Board district that takes in most of Cary, with its population of about 140,000 people.
Whether to spend more of taxpayers' money for schools is a key point of difference -- Nixon says yes, Goldman says no. The candidates link their stances on money to the busing-for-diversity debate that's foremost in the Oct. 6 contest for four seats on the board that oversees North Carolina's largest school district. Goldman opposes the practice, while Nixon favors it.
This underlying controversy is central to all four school board district races. And the voters' decision could determine the future of Wake County's approach of keeping schools in balance based on the economic level of students' families.
Goldman would like to ditch the current system, along with the spending and busing that make it possible, in favor of neighborhood schools that would allow students to attend school closer to home.
"Having schools based around communities would increase parental involvement," she said.
Nixon wants more money for expanded academic offerings and tries to turn Goldman's anti-tax stance back on her. She says Goldman is ignoring fiscal reality when she pushes for neighborhood schools.
According to Nixon, reworking student assignments for neighborhood schools would require new buildings with multimillion dollar price tags -- additional money that could be spent on improved classroom offerings.
"We cannot have neighborhood schools unless we build more schools, and that's expensive," Nixon said. "I think that her ideas and her plan will be detrimental to the county."
Goldman counters that the school board can keep spending -- and taxes -- from rising if board members are good stewards and convince county commissioners, who hold the purse strings, of their ability to hold down costs.
"I don't believe that we need more funding," she said.
On her Web site, she adds: "We must stop wasting money on less important administrative functions, and refocus every dollar possible into the classroom."
Goldman also suggested that board members could set up a formula for funding increases to be used by the commissioners to meet growth.
Why does Nixon think more spending is needed?
"We spend a lot less on education than most other schools in the country and yet have found ways to have a successful school district," she said. "I think we are at a tipping point and that continuing to underfund the schools will put our students at a disadvantage in the global economy, whether they are going to be in a service industry or in green jobs or have a college degree."
Real estate transfer taxes and impact fees are among possible means of raising more money for schools, Nixon said. Voters in several Triangle counties rejected transfer taxes last year in the wake of heavy opposition from the real estate industry.
"The citizens of Wake County cannot tolerate more tax increases," Goldman said.
A review of spending from county, state and federal sources shows that Wake County in 2007-2008 spent an average of $8,117 per pupil, while the average North Carolina district spent $8,521. Higher levels of federal spending in counties with larger low-income populations accounted for some of the difference.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg County public schools, which moved to a neighborhood schools model this decade, spent $8,595 per pupil in 2007-2008 but sharply cut spending in the current year.
In Cary, recently assessed as the nation's third-fastest-growing city, a little more than 1,300 votes formed the margin of victory in the district's last school board race, in 2005. As candidates troll for crucial votes, they are working a variety of angles, but the diversity/ busing/ assignment issues are always just under, if not at, the surface.
Goldman points to her experience as an involved parent, noting that she was able to persuade the system to reverse an assignment decision that affected her node, or neighborhood. She'd like to see a more collaborative relationship between families on one side and the board and administration on other.
"I have proven that I can work successfully with the administration," Goldman said.
Goldman has lived in Cary for only four years, compared to Nixon's decades, but stresses that she's "currently and actively" involved in the system.
"There is not a week or even a few days that go by that I do not have a foot in the schools," Goldman said.
Nixon spent 20 years as a county employee and says that her experience with Wake government will allow her to function effectively at budget time, when the board and county commissioners typically wrangle over funding. In the end, she said, Wake's economic vitality depends to a significant degree on the schools' reputation and their ability to attract new families. Many newcomers cite the schools as a reason they move to Wake County, she said.
"What we have now is a good system," Nixon said. "We need to work on making it even better, but we don't want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg."
Staff writer T. Keung Hui contributed to this report.
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