Sheehan

Moving words, but minds are made up

Staff WriterMarch 3, 2010 

Graeme Peterson is 14, and his hands shook as he held the speech he delivered to the Wake County school board Tuesday.

"As I stand here, all I can wonder is if you really care, and if you're actually listening to me," said Peterson, an Enloe High School student.

Beep. Time up.

Thirty seconds later, beep, beep.

Finally, a firm "thank you" as board Chairman Ron Margiotta dismissed Peterson and called the next speaker to the lectern for her two minutes trying to capture the board's attention. Or at least the public's. More than 50 people spoke on both sides of the school diversity issue during the afternoon session, which bled deep into the evening.

For the people who have made attending school board meetings a part-time job since the new majority took office in December, there was little real hope, as Peterson indicated, that the speechifying would make much difference.

In the end, it didn't.

After turning back several challenges, the board voted predictably, 5 to 4, to take the first steps to end busing for socio economic diversity and establish community-based school assignments.

Some in the audience cheered. Others wept.

The Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP, called all supporters of school diversity together to hold hands and chant and sing. He urged the crowd to keep the faith. The board, he said, had only united the community. "Black and white, young and old!" he declared in his booming baritone. Barber warned a lawsuit is in the offing.

It had been a long day. The board members heard themselves praised and damned. Some speakers urged the board to act swiftly, to exercise a majority gained at the ballot box.

"This has been discussed ad nauseam for years," said Joey Stansbury. "Thank you for moving forward."

Vicky Atherton, who painted her nails and put on makeup as she waited for the meeting to begin, said she lived in Charlotte when busing ended there. All to the good.

"The system needed tweaking at first, but it worked out fine," Atherton said.

Others begged the board to gather more data. To slow things down.

Over hours of oratory, there was little consensus but plenty of drama. And sermons.

Tom Rhodes, minister at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh, warned board members that he would be preaching about them this Sunday. "My mother always told me if you're going to talk about someone, you need to tell them to their face."

There were history lessons.

John Gilbert, who served as a Wake school board member and chairman for 16 years, noted that when he left in 1999, 11 schools had populations of low-income students above 40 percent; now there are 56 or 57.

"If you want to look for the cause of declining achievement, look there," he said.

Board members heard from products of our schools.

George Ramsay, a senior at Enloe vying for a Morehead Scholarship, reminded the board: "Responsibility comes with being in the majority."

There were histrionics.

Enloe students dressed as pirates forced actors posing as school figures to walk the plank outside the Wake Administration Building.

There were emotional pleas.

"Please, please take this beyond the political circus it's become," said Robin Oke of Apex.

Around the board's table, the faces remained mostly impassive. Superintendent Del Burns, who will leave the Wake school system in June unless fired sooner, must practice tantric breathing to remain so still.

Brenda Berg, whose child attends Stough Elementary, summed it up well: "I fear that my voice and the voice of many others will not be heard, because you've already made up your minds."

After hours of beeps and more beeps, the board majority interrupted public comment half-way through the speakers list. The members turned to a decision already made, a decision whose implications will endure long into the future.

ruth.sheehan@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4828

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