RALEIGH — The new sheriffs are in town.
Tuesday's overwhelming victory by John Tedesco in a Wake County school board runoff means busing for diversity and other established policies will be squarely in the crosshairs of a new majority taking the reins of the 140,000-student Wake system Dec. 1.
Tedesco, a New York-born executive of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Triangle, outpolled educator Cathy Truitt by more than three to one in District 2, which includes Garner, Fuquay-Varina and Willow Spring. The win solidifies the prospect of a turnaround for the Wake County school system, which has attracted national attention and, in the eyes of its supporters, had helped build the reputation of Raleigh and Wake County as an attractive place to live.
Tedesco and three other recently elected members of the new majority withstood opposition from a coalition of traditional Raleigh power brokers as they promised to discard forced busing for diversity in favor of a system of neighborhood schools. The successful candidates questioned the effectiveness of the diversity policy and promoted allowing children to go to schools in their communities, even if the change results in racially and economically imbalanced schools.
"We respect the diversity of the community," said Tedesco, 34. "Now we need to look at educating all the children in the community who are left behind. A 54 percent graduation rate for economically disadvantaged children is simply not good enough."
Rosa Gill, a former board chair who resigned in June to become a state representative, said Tuesday that the neighborhood schools proposal is easier to promise than put into effect.
"Right now, based on the economy, there's not going to be enough money to build neighborhood schools as they describe them," Gill said.
Gill hopes for best
Gill added that the new school board members will have a different perspective on the system once they take office and experience its problems and successes firsthand.
"They are going to find out that a lot of things are working well," she said. "I really feel that they are going to move progressively forward."
Tedesco received more votes - unofficial results gave him 6,658 - than were cast overall in the first round of voting Oct. 6, when the ballot included five candidates, including incumbent Horace Tart.
Tedesco will join current board member Ron Margiotta and recently elected members Chris Malone, Debra Goldman and Deborah Prickett, all of whom have vowed to stop forced busing for diversity.
"The parents just had enough," Prickett said Tuesday. "The public has spoken."
In a show of unity, Prickett and Goldman joined Tedesco in a brief post-election celebration in Garner. Truitt also unexpectedly showed up.
Current members who have supported the longstanding policy of balancing schools based on students' economic backgrounds are Dr. Anne McLaurin and Kevin Hill, along with Carolyn Morrison and Keith Sutton, both appointed to fill vacancies this past summer. None have served more than two years.
More changes possible
In addition to opposing the policy of busing for diversity, members of the new majority have pledged to end mandatory year-round school attendance and potentially stop the "Wacky Wednesday" policy of weekly early dismissals for teacher planning time. The board will also have to deal with system growth that has lessened in recent years, but still brings as many as 2,000 new students to the system annually.
Truitt ran a zig-zag campaign that included a call for a runoff, an effort to reverse that call, an endorsement of Tedesco and, finally, a declaration that she would take office if voters picked her.
The winning candidates won support and financing from the Wake Schools Community Alliance, a parents group and political action committee, and the Wake County Republican Party.
The location of this year's races in outlying areas of the county meant that most voters within Raleigh city limits will have to wait until 2011 to make their wishes known on the system's direction.
Even then, the seats up for election will mostly be those occupied by what will be a school board minority - those who favor the current policies - when new members take their seats.
The state NAACP has vowed to watch the new board's actions and, if necessary, take legal action to prevent school resegregation. Some parents fear reassigning students to neighborhood schools will harm the magnet school program.
The new board members pledged Tuesday to listen to parents and the community as they carry out their campaign pledges. But they emphasized that things are going to change in Wake.
"We can do what the people asked us to do," said Goldman, the new board member from Cary. "Now we can get in there."
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