Diversity policy voted down in tense meeting

Del Burns holds onto his job, at least for now. 8A

Staff WritersMarch 3, 2010 

  • The neighborhood schools resolution proposes dividing Wake into "community school zones." Each would have magnet, year-round and traditional calendar schools so students can attend classes closer to home. Details still have to be hammered out, leaving these questions:

    How many community zones? There will likely be heated fights over how the boundaries will be drawn.

    What will happen to the current magnet schools? Many parents and students fear they'll lose their unique programs.

    What will be done to help the schools whose poverty levels increase under the new assignment system?

    Will the new assignment system do a better job of helping low-income and minority students?

  • Here are the key dates for Wake's diversity policy:

    July 1976: Raleigh and Wake County school boards merge with the idea of combating white flight from urban neighborhoods and achieving equity.

    March 1982: Wake County Superintendent Dr. Walter Marks proposes a Schools of Choice program of educational options designed to achieve racial balance and efficient utilization of schools. The magnet program begins August 1982.

    January 2000: Wake implements a new diversity policy based on family income and student achievement instead of race. No more than 40 percent of students at each school should receive free or reduced-price lunch, and no more than 25 percent of students should be reading below grade level. Previous guidelines established minimum and maximum minority enrollments at each school.

    November 2005: Supporters of the diversity policy kept control of the school board as they held off challengers backed by evangelical Christians and groups that wanted parents to have more choice in school assignments.

    June 2007: U.S. Supreme Court limits use of race in assigning students, prompting more school districts to consider using Wake'ssocioeconomic diversity model.

    Tuesday: New school board majority takes first step to eliminate socioeconomic diversity in favor of neighborhood schools.

    Sources: news reports, Wake County Public School System

    News researcher Teresa Leonard

— In a chaotic and conflict-filled meeting, Wake County's school board voted Tuesday night to kill the district's long-standing diversity policy and begin 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, a policy that has won Wake national recognition and has been an important factor in student assignments for decades. The resolution calls for assigning students to schools in their communities.

The vote, which signals fundamental change for the state's largest district, came at the end of a day of tense, emotional meetings.

The sessions started at 10 a.m. and included grim budget news from Superintendent Del Burns. There was a closed-door session to decide whether Burns, a strong supporter of the diversity policy, would be fired before he retires June 30. And as afternoon stretched toward evening, there were hours of public comment, including a near-violent disturbance over a speaker's accusations of racism.

Supporters of the board's ruling coalition hailed the diversity vote as a step toward providing families more stability. But critics complained the measure would lead to resegregation and deepen the academic divide between impoverished and affluent schools. In a spirited impromptu demonstration after the vote, they vowed to keep fighting and echoed the civil rights protesters of the 1960s.

"Don't get discouraged!" said the Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP, who has threatened to sue the board if policies result in resegregation. "Get your head up! We've got some courts we may need to get into."

Supporters of the board majority said attempts to cast the resolution in the light of civil rights were wrong.

"It's insulting to all the people who actually lived in the horrendous segregated schools to compare that to letting people simply stay in neighborhood schools," said Dallas Woodhouse, state director of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group.

School board member John Tedesco, who co-wrote the resolution, said critics were trying to "rile people up." "They don't understand our hearts and minds," said Tedesco, who chairs the committee that will draft the neighborhood schools plan.

Members of the board's minority argued the resolution violates several board policies, including not giving members and the public time to review the resolution 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 member Carolyn Morrison.

The resolution survived attempts to defer or amend it. All failed 5-4, a reflection of the majority's solidarity. Four members elected last fall joined with incumbent Ron Margiotta to form the bloc and they elected him chairman.

The resolution calls for Wake to be divided into community zones, each with magnet, year-round and traditional calendar schools. If final approval is given March 23, board members would spend nine to 15 months working out details. The zones would be phased in over the next three years.

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

"This is a change in reassignment that people have wanted for a long time," Margiotta said.

Critics speak loudly

Wake has been using diversity as a factor in student assignments since the 1970s, switching from the use of race to family income in 2000.

The vote to end the policy came after more than 50 people spoke in front of a standing-room-only crowd. Passions flared, 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. CurtisGatewood, second vice president with the state NAACP, who was gaveled down by Margiotta.

Gatewood called Ron Margiotta a "white racist" and refused to stop speaking after his time ran out, prompting security to confront him. After a 10-minute recess, Margiotta allowed Gatewood to finish. Gatewood drew cheers as he left the room.

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

Resolution backed

Several speakers urged the new board majority to continue with the resolution. 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 argued that the majority didn't have data to prove that community schools would work. One referred to George Wallace, the Alabama governor who loudly championed segregation during the 1960s.

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

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

keung.hui@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4534

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