Diversity supporters play offense

Wake school board critics pledge to resist shift toward community schools.

Staff WriterMarch 25, 2010 

— The new Wake County school board majority's plan to abandon the use of socioeconomic diversity will be fought every step of the way by groups that vow to block efforts to implement neighborhood schools.

Supporters of Wake's diversity policy say they're not deterred by the board's 5-4 vote Tuesday to end decades of busing for racial and income diversity in favor of sending children to schools in their communities. The leaders of the largest opposition groups say they plan to scrutinize every step that the board will take over the next nine to 15 months to develop the new system, from lobbying the public to potentially taking legal action.

"We will work to fight their efforts to end socioeconomic diversity," said the Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP, on Wednesday. "We will use every legal and moral tool at our disposal."

The calls of defiance were countered with calls for community unity from supporters of the board majority. They urged supporters of the diversity policy to work with the board in developing the details of the new assignment model, which would divide Wake into community school zones.

"The time for fighting is over," said Kristen Stocking, a founder of Wake Schools Community Alliance, a parent group that raised money during the fall campaign to elect four Republican-backed board members.

"The process will move forward over the next few years whether they like it or not. This is the will of the voters."

In addition to intense scrutiny from opponents, the board's majority will deal with challenges such as how the new community-schools system will be implemented during a time of tight budgets and the expectation of renewed student growth. The board also will have the challenge of deciding where to set the boundaries for each zone and what to do with magnet schools.

Since the mid-1970s, racial or socioeconomic status has been a key factor in school assignments for students, who now number about 140,000. The use of socioeconomic diversity for the past decade has won Wake national recognition.

Supporters of the diversity policy had argued that the policy helped the district avoid assigning high proportions of students from low-income families to district schools, which can lead to lower test scores and high teacher turnover; those factors can discourage businesses from moving into the area. Critics argued that the policy allowed the district to hide the poor academic performance and graduation rates of students from low-income families.

As the Tuesday vote neared, the lobbying efforts of supporters of the diversity policy increased, with a candlelight vigil Monday and predictions of resegregation Tuesday. The board's actions were booed by some in the crowd, with a few protesters creating such a disruption with their chanting that they were arrested.

Supporters of the board said Wednesday that histrionics need to end and that talk about resegregation is overblown.

"Lay down your candles and your songs and give them breathing room," Patrice Lee, a founder of Wake CARES, a parent group that backs the board majority, said Wednesday at a news conference.

Kathleen Brennan, another Wake CARES co-founder, said "the time for threats, name-calling and dire consequences is over."

But Barber said the NAACP won't give up no matter how long it takes to restore the diversity policy. He noted that it took 58 years for the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse its earlier decision that separate but equal was legal.

Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, which backs the diversity policy, pledged Wednesday to put the new board's plans under the microscope. She predicted that public backlash, which the group will try to heighten, and budget woes will derail the majority's efforts.

"I have faith in the community," Brannon said. "Their core values are stronger than the core values of the five. The community will not let the board vote stand."

But there was at least some talk of conciliation from groups that back the diversity policy. The Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association, a leading local civil rights group, passed a resolution last week in support of maintaining economic diversity. But Dan Coleman, the group's president, said the board's vote "hopefully presents all of us an opportunity to strengthen all of our families and communities as we move forward together."

"The RWCA stands ready willing and able to work with our Board of Education in crafting a new assignment policy that causes all communities to be high functioning and engaged communities," Coleman said.

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

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