In the most significant Wake County school board contest since the 1970s, opponents of the board and administration say Tuesday's voting offers a huge opportunity to tip over the sitting panel and its longstanding policies.
Four seats are at stake with only one incumbent running. And most districts in play are in the outer areas of the county, where critics of busing for diversity and other policies that have drawn parental ire have had more success.
Supporters of the current board argue that discarding an approach that serves Wake County's students well would be disastrous. They say the diversity policy has led to national recognition and has boosted economic growth.
Those who want a makeover for the nine-member board say that factors that make this election promising include:
The outspoken dissatisfaction of some parents with current policies and practices.
The backing of local Republicans.
A synergy with the national anti-tax, anti-big-government movement.
The work of several well-organized, well-funded community groups and PACs.
"The opportunity is huge, and I think we have a good chance of winning this thing," said Allison Backhouse, an Apex parent and a leader of the Wake Schools Community Alliance, a group critical of student assignment policies. "As we formed WSCA, we all had the light bulb switch on. If you want to change the policy, you have to change the policymakers."
The policies critics want to end include promoting diversity by balancing percentages of low-income students at schools. They oppose assigning students to year-round schools without parental consent. They're backing candidates who say they'll promote neighborhood schools.
Opposition candidates would need to win all four seats to change the system's direction.
None of the candidates is doing any polling, nor are local polling firms.
Jennifer Lanane, president of the Wake County chapter of the N.C. Association of Educators, whose members include 5,000 school employees, thinks critics are overstating their community support.
"The people moved here because of the quality of the school system," Lanane said. "Why would they want to tinker with that? Not with neighborhood schools, whatever that means."
Lanane's group, along with several others, including the Wake County Democratic Party, has backed candidates who have pledged to maintain the diversity policy.
Wake County originally bused children to keep schools racially balanced, starting in the 1970s. In 2000, the schools began using family income as the basis for diversity.
Some parents have always been against their children being bused to create more diverse schools, but opposition ramped up in the last few years as the county grew rapidly and more students were assigned to year-round schools.
Supporters point to Charlotte
Those who support Wake's policies seize on the neighborhood schools position espoused by opponents, pointing to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, where a 1999 court order resulted in a dismantling of that district's diversity policy in 2002.
The Charlotte system switched to more neighborhood-based schools and increased spending to improve academics in schools with many poor children. Despite that, Charlotte has significantly lower test scores overall than Wake, though some groups of poor students in Charlotte do better than their counterparts in Wake.
Wake supporters say the district wants to avoid a Charlotte replay.
Riding wave of discontent
However, Republican leaders say the elections create an opportunity for anti-establishment candidates to piggyback on widespread discontent with institutions perceived as out of touch, from the White House to the school board.
"Certainly the discontent at the national level is helping fuel activism that we hope translates into turnout," said Claude E. Pope Jr., Wake County Republican Party chairman. "If either party could get just half of their people out, it would be a landslide."
The major parties' level of involvement in the races, which are officially nonpartisan, is unusually high.
"I've felt very strongly that the Democratic Party has to be involved in this election," said Jack Nichols, chairman of the Wake County party.
Both parties will be staffing phone banks, offering rides to the polls and possibly mailing out campaign material.
Few voters expected
As in most off-year ballots containing no statewide races, turnout levels could hover around 10 percent or less. That means either party could likely earn slots on the board by mobilizing as few as 1,500 more voters than its opponents.
In addition to the GOP's help in getting out the vote, the candidates who'd like to take the board in a new direction are also getting help from several nonprofits and PACs.
For example, the Wake Schools Community Alliance has raised more than $24,000, according to campaign finance reports, to back its candidates, one in each race.
Other groups backing the critics include Take Wake Schools Back, Wake CARES and Concerned and Committed Leesville Parents.
While there's no equivalent group to the Wake Schools Community Alliance backing candidates who support district policies, several prominent local Democrats and the N.C. Association of Educators have given donations.
Nichols dismisses the opponent groups as being a Republican effort to take control of the school board.
"This has been pretty much a Republican thing from the beginning," Nichols said. "The Alliance and other groups are their alter-egos."
Critics: It's not partisan
Critics say their effort is bipartisan. Backhouse of the Wake Schools Community Alliance said she's a Democrat who voted for Obama and cares most about education.
"The political piece gets drawn through it," Backhouse said. "It's hard to ignore, but it's just a bunch of noise."