RALEIGH — Wake County school board members will decide today whether to sign off on recently recommended student reassignments that critics say were based on political promises and that supporters say will put children in schools closer to their homes.
In one prominent example, a majority of members is likely to vote to reverse the 2009 reassignment of three nodes, or small assignment areas, from Lacy Elementary School, an inside-the-beltline Raleigh landmark for more than a half-century, to Stough, an elementary school near Crabtree Valley Mall.
The areas to be reassigned include the home owned by Dana Cope, executive director of the State Employees Association of N.C. After Cope's two sons were reassigned from Lacy to Stough, he formed a political action committee and backed candidates who now form the board's ruling majority.
"We really need to change the administration, in addition to taking over the board," Cope said in January 2009 after the previous board voted against him on the reassignment.
Cope's suggestion early last year for change came to fruition with the election of a new school board majority last fall and the resignation of Superintendent Del Burns, who was placed on paid leave through the end of June.
"Once again, the winners will be the affluent and the politically connected, and the losers will be average kids and the system as a whole," Rob Schofield, a former Stough parent and director of research and policy development at N.C. Policy Watch, a left-leaning think tank, wrote in an online column last week.
N.C. Policy Watch is a project of the N.C. Justice Center, an anti-poverty group whose board of directors includes Orage Quarles III, publisher of The News & Observer.
Efforts to reach Cope on Monday were unsuccessful, but members of the new majority defended the Lacy-Stough reversal as the correction of a bad initial decision.
"It was their community school," said Chris Malone, one of the new board members, on sending the students back to Lacy. "It was the right thing to do. We righted a wrong."
The board is in the process of ending the longstanding policy of supporting socio-economic diversity in Wake schools. Instead, the board majority wants to adopt a community-based plan that will use "nondiscriminatory, objective, data-driven criteria, tools, and practices over existing subjective methods," according to a resolution adopted last month.
The old board agreed to move the students to relieve crowding at Lacy and to fill empty seats at Stough. There was also a diversity component because the transferred Lacy students were expected to reduce the percentage of low-income students at Stough.
At Stough, parent Mary Kelley doesn't think the reassignment under consideration today meets that test of objective and data-driven decision-making.
"The parents at Stough feel that the board members sign a code of ethics that they are going to serve all the children in Wake County - we feel like there's no place for preferential treatment," Kelley said.
Others in the areas reassigned from Lacy also got politically involved, contributing more than $2,600 to the campaigns of individual members of the new board majority or to Wake County Republican Party or to the Wake Schools Community Alliance, both major backers of a power shift on the board. The Children's PAC, which Cope founded, eventually disbanded and joined forces with the Wake Schools Community Alliance.
"I don't hold with the idea because you gave me money that I'm beholden to your views," Malone said. "You give me money because you like what I support."
At a work session last week, board members turned down several other requests for reassignments for the coming school year because they came too late in the year or were not supported by data.
One that got initial approval, the reassignment of more than 100 students from Garner High School to Southeast Raleigh High School, drew the objection of board member Keith Sutton. He said Monday that the move was made to fulfill board member John Tedesco's pledge to political supporters.
"It gives the appearance of political motivation when most of the other moves were requested by parents in their respective communities," Sutton said.
But Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams, who has long complained about Southeast Raleigh students being bused into the town's schools, said the school board's decision is a step in the right direction. Tedesco, who did not return calls Monday, is making good on his campaign promises, Williams said.
"[Voters] were telling me they wanted change," said Williams, who endorsed Tedesco last fall. "John was promising he would bring change."
Staff reporters Ray Martin and Sarah Nagem contributed to this report.
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