If opponents of busing win Tuesday's Wake County school board election, efforts to maintain classroom diversity could be abandoned -- an outcome some fear will lead to a de-facto resegregation of North Carolina's largest school system.
Yet, with the election just days away, black residents have had only a small voice in a noisy campaign season.
All but one of 11 active candidates for four district seats, centered in Wake's suburban areas, are white. Candidate forums have drawn mostly white audiences. And black leaders have been largely silent, partly because the district seat that represents Southeast Raleigh, the center of Wake's black leadership, is not up for election this year.
Busing for diversity isn't the only issue -- mandatory year-round schools and spending are also hot topics -- but it is the one that would dramatically reshape public education and most affect minority families.
Some black parents say they fear voters don't know what's at stake. If busing is abolished, they envision a two-tiered system in which many minority children cluster in high-poverty schools, dropout rates soar and good teachers flee. Even middle class black parents whose children are not bused for diversity are concerned.
"I am scared to death," said Colethia Evans, a black parent from North Raleigh whose daughter attends Ligon Middle School as a magnet student. "I don't feel that people understand the overall impact, how much this would set us back."
Some black civic leaders plan to make a public statement Monday endorsing the district's policy of busing students to achieve socioeconomic balance. So far, they have shied from making strong statements about segregation and its effects on minorities.
"It's not just a black issue; this is important to anyone who is interested in the quality of the school system," said Keith Sutton, the school board's only black member, who is not up for election this year.
Sutton, who was appointed to fill former board Chairwoman Rosa Gill's seat in the only majority-black board district, said black leaders have worked behind the scenes, urging voters to support diversity during church services and club meetings.
It's a muted strategy in an off-year election, in which turnout is typically low and the outcome will hinge on which side brings out more voters.
GOP backs group
Busing is a perennial issue in Wake's school board elections, but this year, an organized group is supporting candidates who want students assigned to schools closest to their homes without consideration for diversity. All four -- Chris Malone, John Tedesco, Deborah Prickett and Debra Goldman -- are well-organized and have the endorsements of the Wake County Republican Party and the Wake Schools Community Alliance, a parent group.
Several other North Carolina school systems have embraced neighborhood schools, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Guilford and Winston-Salem/Forsyth. As a result, many black students in those districts are concentrated in high-poverty schools.
In the Wake contest, candidates who support neighborhood schools say they would funnel extra resources to low-income schools. And some black parents support that approach.
Kimberly Coleman, a mother of two who lives on Raleigh's southeastern edge, said black children bear the brunt of busing. Her children were reassigned this year to a middle school in Apex for diversity. She got them transferred back to their previous school in Garner.
She said she had noticed that few white children were involuntarily bused into primarily African-American neighborhoods.
"Their diversity policy, when you really look at it, only goes one way," Coleman said. "It goes from Southeast Raleigh to Cary and Apex to try to balance out those schools. ... If it's not going to be equal, just put us back in our neighborhood schools."
But many say that viewpoint is the minority in the black community, whose leadership fought against school segregation in the 1960s and 1970s, pushed for the merger of the Raleigh and county school districts and has supported Wake's 30-year commitment to diversity.
"I know for a fact that we, as a community, do not want to regress," said Calla Wright, a Southeast Raleigh parent and founder of the Coalition of Concerned Citizens for African-American Children. "We realize the history, all the hardships our people have faced."
But in an election in which black voters will likely be only a small force, Wright is focusing on a more inclusive message. She said black leaders are coming together with diversity supporters of all races.
These supporters of the diversity policy will hold a news conference at 10 a.m. Monday at the Raleigh Convention Center. Speakers will include Knightdale Mayor Russell Killen and Capitol Broadcasting Corp. President Jim Goodmon.
Fifteen former school board members have also signed a joint letter backing the diversity policy.
Ire over reassignments
Diversity has become the salient issue among people angry about forced school reassignments, and candidates who oppose busing have homed in on the diversity policy as the cause of unwanted student moves.
But school officials say most moves are made to relieve crowding and fill new schools. Efforts to achieve diversity complicate the moves and sometimes send students farther from home, but even without the policy, reassignment to address growth would still be necessary.
Some say the focus on diversity is an attempt to inflame tensions, much like some of the charges made against a proposed federal health-care plan.
"It's sort of like 'death panels,'" said Adrienne Lumpkin, a black middle-class mother of four from the northwest area of Raleigh. "People jump on it. It's an emotional issue."
Evans, the other North Raleigh mother, said she sympathizes with parents frustrated by multiple reassignments or forced assignment to year-round schools. But she said the school system can strive to fix individual problems without throwing away its ideal of integrated classrooms.
With neighborhood schools, Evans said, her child would probably go to a good school where many students were white. But Evans said she worries about children in poorer neighborhoods, who might end up in failing schools similar to those in cities such as Philadelphia and Baltimore.
"I just think it's very selfish and very shortsighted," she said, "to care only about your child."
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