RALEIGH — Wake's contentious school board races culminated Monday in the Raleigh Convention Center with dueling news conferences on school diversity, the issue that has come to define this year's campaign.
On the eve of today's election, a group of business leaders, pastors, politicians and school administrators calling themselves the "Friends of Diversity" gathered to urge voters to support long-standing efforts to maintain socioeconomic balance in the state's largest school system.
But when the civic, business and political leaders finished and the microphones were turned off, challengers to the diversity policy seized the podium to call for assigning children to the schools closest to their homes. They also distributed copies of a recent SAS Institute report that questioned how well Wake is meeting the academic needs of low-income and minority students.
Four district school board seats in Wake's suburban areas are on the ballot today. Although the candidates are also concerned about spending and year-round schools, the greatest divide in all four races is between supporters of busing to maintain diversity and challengers who want a system of neighborhood schools. Contests for Raleigh mayor and City Council, DurhamCity Council and Cary Town Council are also on the ballot.
If neighborhood-school proponents sweep into office in the quartet of school board races, Wake schools could be dramatically reshaped after 30 years of busing.
"It seems to have now come down to a referendum on diversity," said Keith Sutton, the school board's lone black member and a supporter of the diversity policy. His seat is not on the ballot.
Jim Goodmon, president and chief executive officer of Raleigh's Capitol Broadcasting Co., which owns the television station WRAL, was among several who said that, without busing to maintain diversity, the county's schools would resegregate and poor children would cluster in failing schools.
"We know, if you have all low-income kids in a school and they have no power and no voice, we know what will happen to those schools," Goodmon said.
Goodmon shared the microphone with an African-American pastor, a former school board member and teacher who helped integrate Wake's schools 30 years ago, and the mayor of Knightdale, Russell Killen.
Killen called diversity the "bedrock" of Wake's successful school system, which he credits with attracting economic growth to the region. He said neighborhood schools would create "have and have-not schools" and hurt eastern Wake's ability to prosper.
"I don't want to see us be divided at a time like this," Killen said. "I don't want to see us build walls around neighborhoods."
Other well-known county leaders stood behind the podium, including Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker, former Wake Superintendent Bill McNeal and Raleigh businessman Smedes York.
But a few minutes after they dispersed, Bill Randall, a retired military man who moved to Wake Forest from Florida last year, took the floor. Randall, a candidate for Congress, said the school system is wrong to think that poor children can't succeed without government intervention.
"I find it personally an insult when people say that those who come from a low-income community don't have a chance," said Randall, who is black, "unless we bureaucrats do things to stack the deck in their favor."
In the audience, the four candidates who support letting children go to schools closer to where they live -- Chris Malone, John Tedesco, Deborah Prickett and Debra Goldman -- applauded.
Tedesco said that neighborhood schools would help poor children as well, by putting resources in their local schools rather than busing them to more affluent neighborhoods.
"Moms in Southeast Raleigh are crying because they have to get their kids to the other side of Cary," Tedesco said. "They just want good schools in their community."
The SAS report
Critics of the diversity policy are trying to use the new SAS report, which was released by the school system Friday, to bolster their case.
"We had people on stage saying how things are going so well," said Joe Ciulla, a leader of the Wake Schools Community Alliance, a parents group that handed out the SAS report. "This report refutes that claim, and before voters go to the polls they should have this information."
The SAS report, which the company has stressed was not meant to evaluate the diversity policy, questioned whether the way Wake analyzes student performance camouflages schooling inadequacies for low-income students. It found that students in Wake's higher-poverty schools did worse than expected compared with similar schools statewide.
The report also questioned why Wake had a lower percentage of minority students taking Algebra I in eighth grade compared with other school districts.
The SAS report was delivered to the school district June 30 but wasn't released to school board members until Friday.
"We really regret this showed up in the campaign," said William Sanders, who co-authored the SAS report. "We wished it had been discussed by the leadership."
David Holdzkom, Wake's assistant superintendent for evaluation and research, called it a "technical disagreement" between Wake and SAS on how to assess the performance of low-income students -- which Sanders said understates the difference. "We don't see anything in the report that requires a response from us," Holdzkom said.
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