District 2 runoff will affect Wake schools

Staff WritersOctober 18, 2009 

  • This month

    School board District 1: Chris Malone was elected to represent this northeast Wake district.

    School board District 7: Deborah Prickett won this northwest Raleigh/Morrisville seat.

    School board District 9: Debra Goldman was elected in this Cary seat.

    Next month

    Another round of races is scheduled for Nov. 3, including the District 2 runoff. Among them:

    Cary Town Council District A runoff

    Municipal elections in several Wake and Johnston towns

    Durham mayor and City Council general election

    Chapel Hill mayor and Town Council

    Carrboro mayor and Board of Alderman

    Hillsborough mayor and Town Commissioners

    Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board

— It's their turn.

People in Garner, Fuquay-Varina and other parts of Wake County's school board District 2 say they have long felt under-represented when big decisions about the schools have been made. But next month, they alone will make a decision that will affect the future of the nation's 18th largest school district.

District 2 voters could decide in a runoff Nov. 3 which of two candidates will join the county board of education. Both hopefuls, retired educator Cathy Truitt and nonprofit executive John Tedesco, say they will challenge the prevailing policies in the school system -- notably a policy of busing to ensure that schools are balanced by students' family income -- though their approaches differ.

Truitt said Saturday she's weighing her options and will announce Monday whether she is dropping out of the race.

With a potential swing vote on the nine-member board at stake, voters from the small towns, rural expanses and new suburbs of District 2 are suddenly poised to influence Wake County and Raleigh history. Since county and Raleigh schools merged in 1976, the school system has put a premium on diversity by busing students first for racial balance, and beginning in 2000, on the basis of families' economic backgrounds.

Some civic leaders have said the schools' far-reaching reputation, partly based on the innovative use of income to monitor diversity, has been key to the area's rise as a national destination for families. But long bus rides and disputes over how well the policy works have provoked parental disappointment in recent years, leading to a near-sweep in October elections by candidates who challenge prevailing practices in Wake schools.

The few thousand votes cast in the District 2 runoff will break a 4-4 split on the board, with the new member likely determining how rapidly Wake moves toward neighborhood schools. Three other newcomers elected from other districts this month will join current board member Ron Margiotta in opposing Wake's forced busing for diversity. Four other board members want to stick with the current policy.

Tedesco says the schools need to be recast with the needs of individual families first, supporting an end to forced busing and criticizing the use of magnet schools as a "false tool for socioeconomic distribution of kids." Truitt also says she's against forced busing, but takes a more gradualist position, asking for more magnet schools and a comprehensive survey of parents and teachers before creating a consensus on how to proceed.

The group's decisions could determine how schools across the county are built and run, and it may have dramatic implications for popular magnet schools near downtownRaleigh.

"I think people feel thatRaleigh controls what goes on," said Debbie McHenry, a Truitt supporter who ran for the board four years ago. "People are tired of that; they feel like we are a part of the county as well. It should not be all what's good for Raleigh."

Conservative Garner

Economically and ethnically diverse, District 2 stretches from a few miles south and east of downtown Raleigh, follows the Neuse River east, then heads south to include growing Fuquay-Varina and sprawling suburbs near Johnston and Harnett counties.

U.S. 401, the spine for most of the district, takes drivers past fast-food outlets and new regional shopping centers outside Garner, an old railroad town that's close enough to Raleigh to qualify as a bedroom community. In between Garner and Fuquay-Varina, it's still country enough for farmers' fields to pop up between small factories and new developments. The Wake school system as a major employer rivals operations such as ConAgra Foods and RW Moore Equipment in Garner and John Deere and Tyco Electronics in Fuquay-Varina.

Slightly more than half of District 2 voters pickedBarack Obama in last fall's presidential election, but even with Democratic voters outnumbering Republicans by about 25 percent, there's a general trend toward the right, at least in the perception of Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams. Tedesco and candidates from other districts who won outright this month were backed by the Wake County Republican Party.

"Garner is becoming more conservative, not only on the social issues, but also on fiscal issues," Williams said. "I think the conservative faction could make an argument that if you bused less, you'd be spending less money."

Complaints about the diversity policy have been especially high in Garner, which gets many students from areas closer to downtown Raleigh. The policy has helped perpetuate a cycle in which more than a quarter of Garner students, usually from middle-to-upper income families, have chosen to attend magnet schools or year-round schools instead of their assigned school. That helps explain why eight of the 11 Garner schools aren't in compliance with Wake's policy of trying to limit a school's low-income population to 40 percent of its enrollment.

The policy's effects also are showing up in academic performance. Even though the overwhelming majority of Wake schools have passing rates of at least 70 percent on state exams, only three Garner schools meet that mark.

The complaints in Garner escalated so much last year that town leaders threatened to withhold renovation permits for two schools unless Wake reduced their percentage of low-income students.

Busing is key

Tedesco, who moved to Garner in 2006 to be near family members living there, won more votes than Truitt and incumbent Harold Tart combined Oct. 6, but he failed to hit the 50 percent-plus mark he needed to avoid a runoff. Tart, a builder who campaigned as a "District 2 native," outpolled Truitt in every Fuquay-Varina precinct, but still fell behind Tedesco by as many as 226 votes in a single voting place.

Tart said he just wasn't able to counter Tedesco's message, especially well received in Garner, that a new board member would end busing for diversity.

"The magic word was busing ," Tart said. "When some heard that word they thought it was bad."

Tart is the second-straight incumbent in District 2 who backed the diversity policy to be defeated.

Truitt posted her strongest showing in Garner, her home community, but defeated Tedesco only in one precinct and tied in another. Jenny Watson, a mother of four students in District 2 schools, has a big Truitt sign outside the family home on U.S. 401 between Fuquay-Varina and Garner. She says Truitt understands what it takes to get young people to do the right thing.

Williams, the Garner mayor, hasn't made an outright endorsement in the District 2 race but notes that voters in his town demonstrated clearly their preference for Tedesco. He also thinks the school board hasn't done right by District 2 families.

"It seems like they protected the inner-city magnet schools," Williams said.

Turnout was low

Less than 10 percent of District 2 voters showed up for the Oct. 6 vote. Many are still forming firm opinions.

"It's kind of a tossup," said Caroline Savino, 67, who moved to Garner from the New York suburbs early this decade. "I kind of hope they can find a compromise."

"I voted for Tart because I thought he was doing a good job," Savino said, noting that she favored the current school board policy of busing students to ensure diversity on the basis of families' economic status.

But David Snipes, 41, a lifelong Garner resident, thinks the school system is going in the wrong direction, so he voted for Tedesco. He spent part of Friday putting up campaign signs.

"We need to bring up the performance level of students and stop busing them around," Snipes said.

Fuquay-Varina resident Mary Carver, 30, liked Tedesco's style and presentation when she saw him speak at a community appearance.

His relationship with the nonprofit Big Brothers Big Sisters, where he is vice president, also won him points with her. "I just like the mentorship of that," Carver said. "It could wean out the bad things that are going on and bring out the good."

The influx of new residents has brought new attitudes and voters to District 2, where at one time it would have been almost unthinkable to have a newcomer such as Tedesco give a native such as Tart a trouncing.

Clif Lavenhouse, an IBM and military retiree who has been in the area for about three years, is keeping an eye on the race, supporting Truitt, while asking for more information on what potential change will mean for all students.

"The one concern I have heard is, if we are going to do away with busing, what if the students still want to attend the school they were going to?" Lavenhouse said.

Staff researcher DavidRaynor contributed tothisstory.

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

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