RALEIGH — Wake County's new school board majority heard impassioned pleas Tuesday from dozens of their opponents, then backed off a campaign promise: acting immediately to stop the growth of mandatory year-round schools.
Members of the new coalition won their seats this fall by commanding margins in low-turnout district races, but the meeting's public comment period skewed heavily toward their critics. Students, parents and teachers spoke against their plans.
During the packed gathering, several opponents expressed fear that the proposed changes, including an end to ensuring schools' diversity based on families' economic background, will return North Carolina's largest district to a pre-civil rights era.
"Please don't take us back 40 years," Raleigh resident Amy Womble said, her voice breaking.
Americans for Prosperity, a conservative-leaning advocacy group, had put out the call for a "support change, support the new board" rally before the meeting, but fewer than a dozen people showed up. Organizer Chris Farr said the rally was intended as a response to extended public criticism of the new board at its firstmeeting.
Inside the board meeting though, the new majority was faced once again with public comment that ran lopsidedly against them, and members punted on one of their key proposals to kill mandatory year-round schools quickly. The board tabled a resolution calling for a halt on opening new schools on a mandatory year-round calendar, because a districtwide parental survey could not be completed in time to make changes for the next school year.
"I wish I could wave a magic wand and make everybody happy," Debra Goldman, the vice chairwoman said. "But we're doing a disservice if we don't proceed prudently with proper planning."
Goldman and other new board members stressed that they still plan to end mandatory year-round schools even if it's not for next school year.
"We need to know what the surveys say before we can move forward," member Deborah Prickett said.
The new majority stood firm on one initiative, voting 5-4 against opening for public bid a review of the district's legal services. With that vote they stood by their Dec. 1 decision to select lawyer Thomas Farr to conduct the review. Opponents on the board had questioned Farr's ties to the state Republican Party.
Board member Kevin Hill questioned whether the majority wanted to hire Farr, a labor lawyer with little education-law experience, to build a case for firing Superintendent Del Burns.
Member John Tedesco, part of the ruling coalition, said the majority is not trying to fire Burns. He said they want to hire Farr because his civil rights experience would be useful if the county were sued by the state NAACP over ending the diversity policy. The Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina chapter of the organization, has threatened a suit.
48 speakers, 3 hours
Nearly 300 people packed the board room for the meeting and spilled into a hallway. Comments lasted nearly three hours as 48 people spoke to the board.
Speakers who supported the new leaders said critics had not been paying attention to the many problems caused by mandated diversity, forced attendance at year-round schools and early dismissals on Wednesday during training periods for teachers.
"There are tens of thousands of people who are not here today who are excited about a return to community schools," said Molly Creel, a parent from Wake Forest.
Parent Anita Wallace, who supports existing policies, said she was representing others who couldn't get off work to attend school board meetings and wouldn't know what to say if they came. Lower-income students benefit from attending schools with others from different economic backgrounds, she said.
"Separate is not equal. That's all I have to say," she concluded.
Louise Lee, a longtime activist against year-round schools, said supporters of the present system should have gotten a wake-up call from the election and from years of complaints from parents unhappy with the system.
"Anyone who expresses shock over what was done is either very new to the system or uninformed," said Lee, a North Raleigh parent.
However, the new leaders heard much harsher words from most speakers, especially those who fear that an increased emphasis on neighborhood schools will hurt the magnet school program. Currently, magnet schools are designed to attract affluent suburban students to schools that would have very high poverty levels without their unique academic programs.
Enloe students speak out
Many speakers were students from Enloe High School, considered one of Wake's leading magnet programs, who said they didn't want to lose its rich variety of elective courses.
"The diversity policy shouldn't be messed with because a relatively few people are upset by the long bus ride," said Lauren Frey, 14, Enloe's freshman council president.
Jennifer Mansfield, a magnet parent at East Millbrook Middle School, said it should not be forgotten how unfair it is that non-magnet schools aren't allowed to offer some programs.
"As magnet parents, we forget about every other child sacrificing something for the great programs we have," Mansfield said.
Parent Gary Dismukes got a rap of the gavel from board Chairman Ron Margiotta when Dismukes raised the idea that the new board's policies were rooted in the "Jim Crow and racist" past.
Some crowd members groaned. Margiotta counseled: "Keep your comments a little cleaner."
Like other parents, Dismukes counseled the board to take a step back before changing the year-round policies.
"Please preserve the new South; don't take us back to the old South," said Robert Siegel, a parent at Ligon Middle School, a magnet school.
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