'Neighborhood schools' issue tapped anger

Support for diversity policy weak

Staff WriterOctober 8, 2009 

— Winning candidates in Tuesday's Wake County school board elections achieved their victories by tapping into widespread resentment about the schools and offering up the rallying cry "neighborhood schools."

But those who favored current policies staked the election on promoting the unpopular cause of busing for diversity, analysts said Wednesday.

"I would like to think that they did so well because they were on the right side of the issues," said Claude E. Pope Jr., chairman of the Wake County Republican Party, which supported the opposition candidates. "Their issues had a tremendous resonance with the electorate."

Interviews with candidates and supporters showed that other factors in the near-sweep by opponents of current school board policies included:

Lackluster support for current board diversity policies by Democrats and even opposition by a significant percentage of African-Americans, as reflected in a private poll taken by a Democratic operative last month.

A core of discontent not only with board policies on diversity but also with year-round schools and what opponents called an arrogant and distant board and administration.

A quartet of suburban districts that typically trend more Republican, offering opposition candidates more favorable political ground.

And traditional shoe-leather campaigning by GOP operatives, community groups and political action committees -- from the precinct level on up.

Democratic pollster Dean Debnam said a Wake County survey in early September by his Public Policy Polling company showed that 61 percent of respondents opposed current Wake policies on diversity and student reassignments, with 29 percent in favor. That meant, Debnam said, that a public outpouring of support for the diversity policy by prominent Raleigh leaders early this week may have been counterproductive.

"I would have advised them against the approach that they took," Debnam said. "It was very clear that the issue that had the juice was the neighborhood school issue. That was the thing that got most people going."

Debnam's polling of 798 likely Wake voters also showed that 46 percent of African Americans opposed current policies on diversity and student reassignment. Nearly half of Democrats surveyed said they opposed those policies, while more than 80 percent of Republicans were against them.

The firm didn't release the results before the election because it was working for a political action committee, set up by Debnam himself, which supported existing diversity policies and didn't want to give their findings to the opposition, Public Policy Polling communications director Tom Jensen said.

School board member Lori Millberg, who chose not to run for re-election this year, said the results sent a clear message from voters who are fed up with system practices.

"We've pushed them too far and now they've pushed the pendulum the other way," Millberg said. "I certainly hope they don't swing it too far."

Lois Nixon, a retired environmental educator, lost to retired firefighter Debra Goldman in a Cary district that has had frequent wrangles about reassignment, with some residents even suggesting that Cary should establish its own school district. Nixon blamed her loss in part on low turnout by people who approve of the way Wake County runs schools now.

"I think that the 90 percent that are happy with the way the schools are didn't turn out to vote," Nixon said Wednesday. "People who are angry always go out and vote more than people who are happy."

Even though the 31,139 votes cast on Tuesday represented only 11.6 percent of the registered voters in those four districts, it was 10,727 more ballots than were cast in the same districts four years ago.

"The low turnout has always been there," said Pope, the GOP county leader. "The current board was elected by a low turnout."

Staff writer T. Keung Hui and news researcher David Raynor contributed to this report.

thomas.goldsmith@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8929

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