Issues for schools' next chief

CorrespondentMarch 10, 2010 

The nastiness surrounding the Wake County school board's move away from schools' economic diversity grows increasingly vile. It's also irrelevant.

Folks, the conversion to community-based schools is a done deal.

Debra Goldman, John Tedesco, Chris Malone and Deborah Prickett rode into office on the promise of ditching diversity-based student assignment. Lest we forget, each won by healthy margins.

At their first meeting, we learned this bunch isn't shy about exercising the power they received from voters. The new members teamed with longtime diversity reassignment opponent Ron Margiotta to pass a resolution in support of neighborhood schools. They also gave the boot to chairman Kevin Hill, an enthusiastic diversity supporter, and replaced him as chairman with Margiotta. To further entrench their power, the new majority took over the leadership of six of the board's seven standing committees, including the one devoted to student assignment.

The state NAACP can file as many rant-laden complaints against the new majority as it pleases. Its national leaders can call for resignations. The Rev. William Barber can continue to sing to the heavens that the opponents of community-based schools will not be moved.

Fine. But neither will the new majority and their supporters.

If anything, the ranks of neighborhood school supporters on the board are likely to grow. In the next election, 2011, all four diversity supporters - Hill, Keith Sutton, Dr. Anne McLaurin and Carolyn Morrison, as well as Margiotta - will stand before voters. I'm not a political strategist, but I know enough math to understand diversity supporters have only one pickup opportunity, while neighborhood school advocates have four.

Diversity supporters are also fighting another lost cause - the term of Superintendent Del Burns. Regardless of when he leaves, Burns has already chosen not to be part of the Wake County schools' future. Therefore, the most important decision isn't whether the district will convert to neighborhood schools, but rather who will lead it.

The next school boss could be the most important in the district's history. Converting to neighborhood schools will force the community and educators to confront the central question now being avoided due to the name calling: which strategies can the schools employ to raise the achievement of underperforming students, particularly poor, African-American and Hispanic kids?

Before the first resume is accepted, the board, parents, educators and the state NAACP need to come together on an answer. Instead of threatening legal action, Rev. Barber and his supporters should accept invitations to sit at a camera-less table to hammer out a student achievement strategy - one they can hand to a new superintendent to develop and execute.

All options need to be on the table, even ones that affect sacred cows.

Should the new superintendent have the power to fire a poorly performing school's teaching staff, as occurred in Rhode Island recently? Outside of No Child Left Behind regulations, should a parent be able to pull a student from a school and place him in another district school if the child's needs aren't being met?

Will the school board reveal how the state and federal supplements to serve at-risk kids are distributed to ensure that schools in low-income areas aren't being underfunded? Will teacher associations agree to financial incentives so the best teachers can be matched up to the students with the greatest needs? Will the NAACP and other community-based organizations commit to serious mentoring and tutoring programs to help ensure minority and low-income children come to school ready to learn to the best of their ability?

These are the questions we should be working on, instead of wasting time discerning the racial overtones of an uttered phrase. The next Wake County school superintendent has a tough job ahead. The more community-based options we can provide him or her, the better off our underperforming students will be.

Contributing columnist Rick Martinez ( is news director at WPTF, NC News Network and

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