RALEIGH — With the school board's vote Tuesday night to end its diversity policy, Wake County began a politically bruising slog to divide the county into community school zones.
The number of zones is undetermined. The cost of the new system is uncertain. And as the board's majority fleshes out a plan to assign the district's 140,000 students to schools as close as possible to their homes, it must fend off charges of resegregation by opponents who vow to keep fighting them.
The deeply divided board eliminated diversity as a goal in the assignment policy with a 5-4 vote, making family proximity to schools the priority. The fight about the diversity policy, which depends on the economic status of families, drew national attention as the majority reversed decades of policy.
"It's terrific for the parents of Wake County," said Allison Backhouse, a leader of Wake CARES, a parents group that backs the new majority. "We've fought for many years to be recognized."
Chairman Ron Margiotta and members John Tedesco, Debra Goldman, Chris Malone and Deborah Prickett voted down last-ditch efforts by the board minority to include students' economic status as an assignment factor, and ignored student protesters' loud chants when the final vote came.
"Hey hey! Ho ho! Resegregation's got to go!" about 20 protesters shouted.
A resolution passed in March called for the board to spend nine to 15 months dividing Wake County into community assignment zones with the goal of assigning students to schools as close as possible to their homes.
Changes will likely not take effect on a large scale until 2012-13. But members of the majority say the result will be greater family stability and choice, including better performance by low-income students.
"It means we'll treat all children fairly," Tedesco said after the vote.
Numerous factors, including the state constitution and federal law, prevent Wake schools from resegregating, Tedesco said.
Prickett said families and students will benefit from living closer to schools, allowing more parental involvement.
But Keith Sutton, a member of the board's minority faction, said the fallout from the vote remains uncertain because there's little detail about how the new community zone plan will work in North Carolina's largest school district.
"I don't think anybody's putting any stock in the plan right now because we don't know what it's going to look like," Sutton said.
Diversity backers vow fight
Along the way, supporters of the now-eliminated diversity policy vowed they will keep fighting the new board.
"There will be a push," said Jocelyn Wilson, 17, an Enloe High School junior who has spoken regularly at board meetings in favor of the now-discarded diversity policy. "It hurt, it really did."
For one thing, diversity supporters will begin to focus on next year's school board elections, said Amy Lee, who has spoken in favor of the diversity policy at board meetings. Five of the nine seats will be on the ballot in 2011, including Margiotta's.
Also, opposition to the current board will likely increase when members start drawing lines on a map to create the new system of zones that are to replace the old assignment policy, Lee said.
"I have a feeling that our numbers and the general discontent are going to grow exponentially when they start drawing up the zones," said Lee, who works with the community group Great Schools in Wake Coalition. "Right now, there is no plan, there are no fiscal implications."
Yevonne Brannon, a former county commissioner and a leader of Great Schools in Wake, said the group will continue to educate and engage the public, keeping a close eye on the zones' development.
"We are going to every meeting, we're going to watch every line that's drawn and every child that's moved," Brannon said.
More legal action possible
The board will also have to deal with the possibility of more legal action, like the lawsuit against two prior diversity votes that was dismissed by a judge on Friday. The Rev. William Barber, head of the state NAACP, is soliciting donations for legal fees and seeking out parents who'd be interested in being plaintiffs in a potential lawsuit against the school system.
In opposing the change, board member Carolyn Morrison cited a magnet grant application sent to the federal government seeking millions in funding for the next three years, which included the assignment plan based on maintaining diversity.
"If we approve this tonight, we will be gutting the heart and soul of Wake County's voluntary desegregation efforts," Morrison said to applause, before unsuccessfully moving for an indefinite postponement of the agenda item.
Tedesco said the district's application included the information that Wake would likely move toward community-based assignments.
Old policy led to lots of busing
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, school board policy was to promote diversity by balancing the percentages of minority students at schools. A decade ago, the board switched to promoting diversity by balancing the percentages of low-income students.
The policy has meant some students, usually poor and minority, are bused long distances to schools outside their communities. In other cases, students of different income levels have been sent to a school that's not necessarily the closest one to help balance the demographics.
Wake's diversity efforts, at a time when most school districts across the nation have opted to go with neighborhood schools, earned it national recognition. Out of thousands of districts nationally, Wake was among only around 70 districts using socioeconomic diversity.
But last fall newly elected school board members attacked the diversity policy, citing poor test scores and graduation rates among low-income and minority students.
Emotion surprised Margiotta
As has been the case at most meetings since December, the number of speakers was so large that it exceeded the normal 30-minute limit for public comments. The board approved a policy on Tuesday saying it can designate spokesmen for groups if there's a large turnout.
As the meeting ended, Margiotta, the board chairman, said he's been surprised at the level of emotion the entire debate has caused, given the long history of Wake families' wanting more stability in student assignments.
"Once people see what's proposed, it'll be a different story," he said. "Like many issues, it tends to be somewhat emotional. It's less emotional for those who support it."
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