APEX — Ron Margiotta came to the Triangle nearly a decade ago to retire, not to become the school board leader of the state's largest school district.
But now Margiotta, 71, finds himself heading a new ruling coalition in Wake County that's already put on the table initial plans to go to neighborhood schools and end mandatory year-round schools. It's a major change for Margiotta, who for the past six years had been the board's lone critic of using forced busing to promote socioeconomic diversity.
"We have an opportunity to make constructive changes," Margiotta said. "Nothing is easy, but it doesn't mean it can't be done."
It's the kind of forceful talk that has helped make Margiotta such a polarizing figure. Conservatives and other critics of the school system hail him as speaking for those who have been ignored.
"He is a person who is in touch with the desires of most parents of Wake County," said Wake County Commissioner Tony Gurley, a frequent critic of the old school board. "He will represent the interests of people who haven't been heard in a long time, parents and taxpayers."
But Margiotta's critics view him as an ideologue who's leading efforts to dismantle a 140,000-student school system that has received national recognition for its diversity efforts. They point to his past public statements in support of ending the magnet school program and breaking up the school district and his leadership role in the Wake County Taxpayers Association, a group that's opposed to raising taxes.
"He has certainly allied himself with groups that don't support what's in the best interests of public education," said Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of N.C. Policy Watch, a liberal think tank.
It wasn't Margiotta's goal to lead a revolution in the Wake school system when he moved from New Jersey to Apex in 2000.
At the time, he and his wife, Lorrayne, just wanted to be near their daughter and young grandson.
Margiotta cleared out a tract on their property, near what's now Beaver Creek Commons shopping center, so he could raise cows. He wanted to make sure he'd have something to do during his retirement.
Drawn into battle
But Margiotta said he soon became caught up in his grandson's student reassignment fight. Like many transplants used to smaller school districts, he questioned why his grandson couldn't just go to the closest school.
Having served as a school board president in New Jersey in the early 1970s, Margiotta decided to try to join the Wake school board to bring about change.
Unlike most North Carolina school boards, those in New Jersey have taxing authority.
New Jersey also has five times as many school districts as North Carolina. School districts in New Jersey are based around individual municipalities, while they're county-based in this state.
Margiotta was rebuffed in 2001 when board members didn't choose him to fill a vacancy among their ranks. But he had the last laugh in 2003 when he defeated at the polls the person who had been selected by the board. Margiotta went on to run unopposed in 2007 in his western Wake district, which includes Apex, Holly Springs and part of Cary.
Over the years, many people have been elected to the school board who advocated neighborhood schools and criticized the diversity policy. But unlike the others, Margiotta didn't waver from his beliefs even when he was often the lone dissenter on issues.
"I always felt it was more important to fight for the things I believe in," Margiotta said. "The others just saw it was easier not to fight and agree."
Margiotta took an active role in this year's school board elections when four of the nine seats were on the ballot. He worked behind the scenes to help recruit and vet candidates. He helped them raise money and gave them advice.
It culminated this fall in an election sweep by the four candidates Margiotta backed.
The new majority moved quickly in their first meeting last week, putting through eight items, starting with Margiotta's election as board chairman. Among the changes approved was ending the weekly Wednesday early dismissals after the end of the school year and immediately halting any work on the Forest Ridge High School site in northeast Raleigh pending a review of other sites.
One of the most sweeping changes was the introduction of revisions to the student assignment policy that would eliminate the current socioeconomic diversity efforts in favor of making neighborhood schools a priority.
After complaints from the board minority, the majority agreed to refer the assignment policy to a board committee.
Full speed ahead
Margiotta hopes that the revisions will be adopted soon, with the first assignment changes going into effect for the 2010-11 school year.
"It's not possible to go to 100 percent neighborhood schools because of where schools are located and capacity," Margiotta said. "But certainly, more thought can be made to have students go to school closer to where they live."
Margiotta also hopes to bring changes for next school year that would end mandatory year-round schools. The board voted last week to have staff survey parents to help determine which year-round schools to convert back to a traditional calendar.
He also wants to see about having two new middle schools and a new elementary school slated to open next year operate either on a traditional calendar or as voluntary year-round schools.
With all the changes he envisions, Margiotta is trying to downplay some concerns raised by critics. He said there are no plans to make major changes in the magnet school program for next year or to pursue splitting up the district.
But the changes already on the table have alarmed people who fear that abandoning the diversity policy will weaken magnet schools and lead to de facto resegregation.
"Ron and the people that have supported them are of an extreme," said Rhonda Curtright, a North Raleigh parent and leader of BiggerPicture4Wake, a parents' group that backed school board candidates who ultimately lost. "A majority of the citizens of Wake County find the school system to be a success."
But Joe Ciulla, a leader of the Wake Schools Community Alliance, a parents' group that backed winning school board candidates, sharply disagreed: "To say that Ron is not a supporter of public education is ridiculous. You'd have to be an irrational person to think he's served on the school board for all these years just to try to undermine public education."
Margiotta intends to make the most of the next two years. He's planning to retire for good to spend more time with his wife of 51 years when his term ends in November 2011.
"I keep hearing people say that it's too hard to change things," Margiotta said, "that the district is too large to make changes. I don't accept that. We're going to put our noses to the grindstone."
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