Wake school board passes neighborhood school resolution

Staff writerMarch 2, 2010 

— Amid a conflict-filled meeting that sometimes recalled the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, Wake County’s new school board majority took the first step today toward implementing neighborhood schools.

By a 5-4 vote, the board gave the first of two approvals needed to pass a resolution calling for abandoning busing for diversity in favor of assigning students to schools in their community. Supporters hailed it as a step toward providing families more stability while critics complained it would lead to resegregation.

“The board needs to make a determination once and for all about what direction to head,” said school board vice chairwoman Debra Goldman, who co-wrote the resolution.

Critics argued that the resolution violates several board policies, including not giving board members and the public enough time to review the changes before a vote. The resolution wasn’t announced until Friday.

“I want to go on record as opposing anything that could lead to resegregation,” said board member Carolyn Morrison, a member of the minority faction. The approval of the resolution came after multiple attempts by the board minority to defer the resolution or to amend it failed by 5-4 votes.

“It’s totally irresponsible and reckless to consider something of this nature without fiscal implications,” said board member Keith Sutton, also a member of the minority faction. “I’m sick and tired of voting on policy matters without fiscal implications.”

School board chairman Ron Margiotta rejected Sutton’s request to rule the resolution out of order.

Four new board members elected last fall, who joined with Margiotta in forming a new majority on the board, had campaigned on ending the diversity policy in favor of neighborhood schools.

The resolution calls for Wake, the state's largest school system, to be divided into separate community zones, each with year-round and magnet school options. If final approval is given March 23, board members would spend the next nine to 15 months working out the details on the new zones.

The plan would be to phase in the zones over the next three years.

If finally adopted, it would end be the first step toward ending Wake’s nationally recognized policy of trying to limit the percentage of low-income students at individual schools. A Sunday New York Times article reported on the changes being considered in Wake.

Supporters and opponents of the new majority mobilized to pack Tuesday’s meeting.

A group of self-proclaimed “student pirates” gathered outside the board offices to hold a “mock liberation” of the school system in favor of the diversity policy.

The vote came after more than 50 people spoke out in front of a standing-room only crowd. Passions repeatedly flared during the discussion with critics of the resolution making up a majority of the speakers.

“If you expect to go to hell, don’t take our children with you," said the Rev. Curtis Gatewood, who was gaveled out of order by school board chairman Ron Margiotta.

Gatewood, who called Margiotta a “white racist,” refused to stop speaking after his time ran out, prompting security to confront him. After a 10-minute recess, Margiotta allowed Gatewood, the second vice president of the state NAACP, to finish speaking.

Gatewood drew cheers as he left the board meeting room.

As a sign of how heated tensions had become, a Raleigh police officer and a Wake County sheriff’s deputy provided extra security at the meeting.

Although outnumbered, several speakers urged the new board majority to continue ahead with the resolution.

“I’d be absolutely appalled and insulted if someone told me I can’t cut the mustard unless I can get help from the outside community,” said Bill Randall, a black conservative candidate for Congress.

Dawn Bartlett, a parent, said neighborhood schools will be better for families.

“I’m completely in favor of neighborhood and community schools,” Bartlett said. “It will allow me to volunteer in a school that’s not 20 miles away.

Critics of the resolution argued that the board majority didn’t have any data to prove that community schools would work.

They charged it would lead to resegregation.

“In the words of George Wallace, do you want your legacy to be segregation now, segregation forever?” said Samuel Greene, a retired Wake principal.

The Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP, led supporters of the diversity policy in singing “We Shall Overcome,” a song associated with the civil rights movement.

Barber, who has previously threatened to sue the school board over resegregation, said he’s putting the board on notice that he considered the resolution to be a violation of the constitutional rights of African American children.

”Your plan is wrong. It’s wayward. It will make things worse and you know it,” Barber said. “Data doesn’t support it. Morality doesn’t support it.”

Matthew Brown, a Raleigh backer of the diversity policy, said going to neighborhood schools would lead to unsuccessful high-poverty schools that are typical around the country.

“If you have high poverty schools, you know these children won’t have a chance for success in the world?” Brown said. “Are you prepared to do this to the children?”

Margiotta, Goldman, John Tedesco, Deborah Prickett and Chris Malone voted for the resolution. Sutton, Kevin Hill, Morrison and Anne McLaurin voted no.

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