Wake schools to take new path

With Truitt out of the race, the board will tilt 5-4 against current policy.

Staff WritersOctober 20, 2009 

  • Cathy Truitt's announcement that she's conceding the District 2 race doesn't mean that the Nov. 3 runoff election will be called off.

    Wake County Board of Elections Director Cherie Poucher said it's too late to remove Truitt's name from the Nov. 3 ballot because early voting began Thursday. She said state law requires the county to hold the runoff, costing more than $30,000.

    Truitt plans to file a letter with Poucher in which she'll concede the election.

    If Truitt were to get the most votes, the seat would be declared vacant. It would be filled by the school board.

    John Tedesco said he's still planning on mobilizing his supporters to come out next month to make the win official.

  • School assignments: Parents want to know how quickly the new school board will move to a system of neighborhood schools and whether the change will lead to massive upheaval in student assignments.

    Funding: When busing for socioeconomic diversity ends, the board will need to consider providing extra resources to schools with high concentrations of poor and minority students.

    Magnet programs: The board may need to consider eliminating or cutting back on magnet programs as Wake sends more neighborhood children back to what are now magnet schools.

    Year-round schools: Parents want to know how quickly the new school board will move on ending mandatory year-round schools, including reversing some of the calendar conversion made at schools since 2007. But will this lead to increased costs?

    Leadership: The new board will need to decide whether to keep Superintendent Del Burns or replace him. It would cost $409,500 to buy out his contract.

— A new Wake County school board majority that wants to end busing for diversity in favor of neighborhood schools is set to take over, bringing changes as soon as next school year.

Cathy Truitt's announcement Monday that she was conceding the District 2 school board runoff election to John Tedesco means he will likely be elected next month. He will provide the swing vote in favor of neighborhood schools on the nine-board member board.

School board member Ron Margiotta said the board could offer families the option to return to neighborhood schools as soon as the 2010-11 school year. Margiotta, who has been on the board since 2003, is expected to emerge as the leader of the new majority that includes Tedesco and the three supporters of neighborhood schools who were swept into office this month.

Margiotta said he hopes the current administrators will adopt the changes, but he won't take no for an answer.

"If our staff can't get the work done, we'll get people who can," Margiotta said.

It's not clear how quickly the new majority might be able to change the direction of the school system. They'll have to figure out how they can carry out their promises to end busing for socioeconomic diversity and end mandatory year-round school assignments, while also addressing concerns from parents that neighborhood schools will lead to resegregation and that the popular magnet school program will be cut back or even eliminated.

Stephanie Fanjul, president of N.C. Partnership for Children, the nonprofit that oversees the state-funded Smart Start preschool program, said Monday that she is concerned that the new coalition's proposed changes would come at "enormous cost."

"First, there's the fiscal cost, and then there's the cost to the kids in the process," said Fanjul, who was among a group that financed last-minute television ads for board candidates who favored busing for diversity.

Since the 1970s, the Wake school system has been noted nationally for its commitment to diversity. Wake switched from busing by race in 2000 to busing by family income to try to balance the percentage of poor students at schools.

The busing policy, along with complaints about frequent student reassignments and perception of an arrogant school system, helped fuel the election victory by candidates backed by the Wake County Republican Party and Wake Schools Community Alliance, a parents group.

The opponents of the diversity policy appear to have accomplished their mission of winning all four board seats this year. Because of Wake's practice of electing board members by district instead of countywide, the new majority has a good chance of staying in control for four years to implement its changes.

In 2011, three of the four seats on the ballot are held by supporters of the diversity policy. The only new seat that the diversity policy supporters could possibly pick up in 2011 is the one in southwest Wake held by Margiotta, who has enjoyed strong support.

The pace of change

Margiotta said he would like to see as many changes as possible in the next four years. The new board members, who take office Dec. 1, are still meeting among themselves and with community groups. Few specifics have emerged.

"Nobody's rushing to judgment," Tedesco said. "No one is going to go in there all reactionary. We're going to go in and build a community plan."

Margiotta is trying to downplay fears that a return to neighborhood schools will lead to a massive shuffling of students, such as in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, where more than 25,000 students changed schools when that district abandoned busing for diversity in 2002. He said his approach of asking parents whether they want to return to neighborhood schools means it won't be a massive, forced shift.

Margiotta is also talking about reducing mandatory year-round schools in 2010 by reversing conversions that caused schools to be moved off the traditional calendar.

One immediate change that will take place Dec. 1 is the election of a new vice chairman. The current vice chairman, Horace Tart, lost his re-election bid this month.

It's likely that a member of the new majority, possibly Margiotta, will become vice chairman. While the position is largely symbolic, the vice chairman has a voice at setting board agendas and sits in leadership meetings with Superintendent Del Burns and the chairman and vice chairwoman of the county board of commissioners.

Kevin Hill said he expects to stay on as chairman of the board until his one-year term expires in June. Hill is urging the majority not to rush in to changes too quickly, to avoid appearing as arrogant as it has accused the current board of being.

"I'm concerned about rushing changes without vetting them," Hill said.

Burns likely to stay

Questions have also swirled around whether the new majority will get rid of Burns and other top-level administrators. Truitt said that Wake County Republican Party and the Wake Schools Community Alliance had both asked her if she would support firing Burns.

Ann Majestic, the school board's attorney, said buying out Burns' contract would involve paying him 18 months of salary, equal to $409,500.

Margiotta said he's not looking at firing Burns. He said he hopes that Burns, who is under contract through June 2013, will stay on to carry out the changes and make sure that his staff implements them.

Burns indicated he would. "I started working here in 1976," he said. "If there are changes, I'll work through them."

As the new majority formulates its positions, Truitt warned Monday that it would adopt policies that would lead to school resegregation. She's urging the public to contact board members to urge them not to cut the magnet school program, which she says can serve as a tool for keeping schools diverse even with the end of forced busing.

"I don't think people want the school system to be blown up," Truitt said. "If people get involved now, they can have an impact."

But Tedesco said Truitt was overstating these fears even as he acknowledged that neighborhood schools could result in schools with very high concentrations of minority students. The new board members had met Thursday with the Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association, a leading local civil rights group that had backed supporters of the diversity policy.

"No one is going to resegregate the schools," Tedesco said. "We are going to work with our community to build a vision that gets us to community schools."

keung.hui@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4534

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