RALEIGH — During a tense marathon meeting, the Wake County school board voted to stop busing students for diversity, then cemented that action by taking the first steps toward a community-based system of student assignment.
With a 5-4 vote Tuesday, the Republican-backed board's majority ended more than three decades of having racial or socioeconomic status be a prime factor in school assignments for students, who now number around 140,000.
Instead, they agreed to start assigning students closer to home, even if the change creates more schools with high concentrations of students from poor families. Board member John Tedesco, point man for the resolution, said the system already allows for high numbers of high-poverty schools.
"This gives us our direction now," said Tedesco, who will chair the committee that will split the county into community school zones, a blueprint that will take up to 15 months to develop. "We're now going to community schools. This will give parents more stability."
While the plan for the new community zones is months from completion, the school board majority quickly solidified its vote by making student reassignment decisions showing they're no longer considering diversity.
The board approved measures in the reassignment plan for this fall that would send hundreds of students to schools closer to their homes. In the process, some diversity-related moves made by the old board were reversed.
After nine long hours
The diversity decision came nearly nine hours into a tumultuous day. Chairman Ron Margiotta and his four allies beat back amendments by opponents on the board who didn't want to pass the resolution without more study, more research and more information on its cost.
"If this is going to stand the test of time, it could stand the test of a work session," said opposition member Kevin Hill.
The majority agreed to an amendment by Dr. Anne McLaurin, another opposition member, that inserted language from the state constitution that guarantees all North Carolina children "an equal opportunity for a sound basic education."
Then, member Carolyn Morrison put the majority in the position of having to vote on "a plan that ensures that schools will not become segregated." Ultimately, the majority didn't support Morrison's amendment.
"The eyes of the nation are upon us," Morrison said.
Tedesco sharply disagreed with the charge that ending the diversity policy will lead to resegregation. "That doesn't happen today. The fact is, the laws of the state of North Carolina and the federal government are sufficient to make sure that does not occur."
During a public comment period, police removed more than 20 people, mostly in their teens and early 20s, who sat in the hallway outside the meeting room and pierced the proceedings with loud chanting: "No resegregation in our town! Shut it down!"
During a public comment period before the full board, about 75 percent of the speakers voiced opposition to the resolution that would lead to fundamental change in the way students are assigned.
Civil rights lawyer Julius Chambers, former director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, joined those who urged the board not to abandon its commitment to diversity.
"We are now reopening a lot of issues and a lot of problems," said Chambers. "I hope you pause a moment and think about the problems you might be creating for the children and the parents you serve."
No coercion, she says
Wake County parent Debbie Griffith Overby said she loves Wake's diversity, but doesn't believe in making students attend schools for that reason.
"I'm against forced busing," Overby said. "This is the United States of America. People should not be forced in Wake County to do anything they don't want to do."
Before the resolution passed, administrators in the morning work session said that they had already eliminated the use of socioeconomic diversity in filling nearly all the magnet schools this year. In the absence of diversity, priority was given to applicants who had siblings in magnet schools or who were applying from crowded schools.
Previously, priority was also given to applicants from more affluent areas who could help create balance at schools in poor areas.
Only at the Wake Early College of Health and Science, where the goal is to attract prospective first-time college applicants, will diversity be used to pick applicants.
Administrators say 4,589 of the 7,670 magnet applicants, or 60 percent, were placed. Traditionally half or less are accepted.
Keeping cash flowing
Administrators warned that the board will need to act within a month to adopt a voluntary desegregation plan to keep receiving federal magnet grants. The diversity policy had been used for previous applications.
The new plan could come in the form of a resolution pledging to keep schools desegregated.
Staff writer Anne Blythe contributed to this article.
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