Suit challenges diversity vote

Says school board stifled dissent against ending diversity policy.

Staff WritersMay 7, 2010 

In the first legal challenge for the Wake County school board majority and its vow to remake North Carolina's largest school district, opponents filed a lawsuit Thursday arguing that two votes against the diversity policy should be tossed out because state law was violated.

The lawsuit, filed in Wake County Superior Court, contends that the school board majority has stifled public participation by deliberately refusing to move recent board meetings to larger venues despite knowing there would be large crowds in attendance. This refusal violated the state's Open Public Meetings Law , the lawsuit says, so votes taken March 23 and Tuesday to ditch the diversity policy and replace it with a student assignment policy canted toward neighborhood schools should be declared void.

Some of the civil rights groups providing legal services have also criticized ending efforts to balance the percentage of low-income students at individual schools to bolster overall academic achievement. Several of the plaintiffs are parents and students, many from magnet schools, who have spoken out against changing the diversity policy.

"Whether or not you support the diversity plan, the school board wasn't doing what it was doing the way it was supposed to be doing it," said Andrew Snee, 15, a Broughton High School freshman and one of the plaintiffs.

School board Chairman Ron Margiotta has toldsupporters they should expect a number of lawsuits from opponents. On Thursday, he said this lawsuit was merely a tactic by opponents to stop the board majority from fulfilling its campaign promises.

"I think we bent over backwards to allow people to speak," Margiotta said. "If they want to just bring us into court, all this will do is take more money from the children of this county. Accept the wishes of the people of this county."

A court hearing has been scheduled for 2 p.m. Wednesday in Courtroom 5B in the Wake County Courthouse in downtown Raleigh.

On March 23, the board voted 5-4 in favor of a resolution calling for the creation of community-based schools and discontinuation of socioeconomic diversity. On Tuesday, the board gave initial approval by a 4-3 vote to a revised student assignment policy that fleshes out the previous resolution.

Early warning

But the threat of legal action has been in the air since before the new board majority took office Dec. 1 after four Republican-backed candidates swept last fall's election.

The Rev. William Barber, state president of the NAACP, warned at the time that if Wake County's new approach to assigning students wound up resegregating schools, the system could be subject to a lawsuit based on the state constitution's stipulation that all children are guaranteed a sound basic education.

Margiotta cited the threatened NAACP suit against Wake as a justification for hiring Republican lawyer Tom Farr as interim special counsel. Margiotta said the board's majority members wanted to keep their options open in case they chose not to call on longtime board attorneys Tharrington Smith, whose founding partner Wade Smith is a former state Democratic Party chairman.

The state NAACP is among the groups providing attorneys in the lawsuit. Other groups in the case include the ACLU of North Carolina, Southern Coalition for Social Justice, UNC Center for Civil Rights, and the N.C. Justice Center.

Orage Quarles III, publisher of The News & Observer, is a member of the board of directors of the N.C. Justice Center.

The crowds at board meetings have sharply increased since December, escalating the often rancorous public opposition to the ruling majority. Starting with the March 23 meeting, the school system began requiring tickets for seats in the boardroom. Margiotta had cited concerns raised by the fire marshal for the change.

But the lawsuit contends that the board created the ticket policy and chose not to move any of the meetings to a larger venue because it felt that "full public access" might "threaten their narrow majority and jeopardize" their plans.

"They felt that hearing from so many people was slowing down the process and slowing down what they wanted to get done," said Woody Barlow, 17, an Enloe High School junior and one of the plaintiffs.

The suit notes how the school board turned down the last-minute March 23 offer from The News & Observer and Capitol Broadcasting to pay for relocating the meeting to the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Raleigh.

"This is about democracy and the way we make decisions in this country," said Swain Wood, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs.

The crowd at the March 23 meeting overflowed into the hallway and outside the building. Angry students began chanting, leading to the arrests of three protesters, none of whom are current Wake students.

Tedesco shrugs

School board member John Tedesco, a member of the majority, called the case a "nuisance complaint." Even if the board loses the case, he said the only thing that will happen is they'll reapprove the changes again.

"All they're doing is taking money out of the classroom to pay for their lawsuit," Tedesco said. "It won't change the vote."

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

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