Wake schools fight stays hot

The Wake board majority vows to press on. Critics promise the same.

Staff WriterJune 21, 2010 

— The conflict between the Wake County School Board majority and its critics is staying as fiery as the weather, with both sides promising to keep the heat coming.

The five-member board majority - facing down high-visibility protests from some civil rights, community and religious leaders and the threat of lawsuits - made clear it is ready to keep taking action based on what members said is a mandate from voters. Having accomplished their goal of discarding the system's long-established policy of reinforcing student-body diversity, members of the board majority recently passed a series of measures seemingly designed to distance themselves from an education establishment they say has failed to meet the needs of thousands of students.

"It is time for a new vision that will develop the capability of all our students," Chairman Ron Margiotta told the board last week in prepared remarks that promised further fundamental change.

Recent structural changes that could put a definitive stamp on the state's largest school system for years to come include severing ties with state and national school board associations and ditching past qualifications for the superintendent's job. The change would allow the consideration of business executives or other nontraditional candidates for the post.

Policies previously required candidates for superintendent to have earned a doctoral degree and to have three years' in-school work experience in the past decade. During board members' debate on the changes, member John Tedesco clearly grew impatient with minority opposition to the changes.

"I hate to say it to my colleagues, but I think we are just dancing around the public debate," Tedesco said. "The entire county knows, our staff knows, everybody in this community knows that this board wants to consider, as is our allowance according to state statute, non-educators for the role.

"We know what it is; let's just vote on it."

Under the direction of Margiotta, the majority has dependably won 5-4 victories in introducing new directions and ending many practices of the previous board - including balancing schools' population based on family income levels. Margiotta said he's disappointed by the opposition both on and off the board, but added that the prospect of more protests and arrests wouldn't stop members of the board majority from doing what they were elected to do.

"They're not going to deter us from giving the school system back to the parents," Margiotta said.

Fight's not over

The NAACP and other organizations promised continuing opposition following the arrests at Tuesday's board meeting of four protesters - state NAACP chief the Rev. William Barber; the Rev. Nancy Petty, pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church; activist and Wake schools parent Mary D. Williams; and Duke University professor and author Tim Tyson.

They announced a series of events to reinforce their cause, including a community meeting at 7 p.m. tonight at Pullen.

"We will gather, discuss the issues and support one another," Petty said. "We invite all Wake County residents, young and old. It doesn't matter what your skin color is; it doesn't matter what your religion is."

The head of the Eastern North Carolina district of the A.M.E. Zion Church announced late last week an effort to fight the changes "by the church's clergy, laity, and members of their respective local communities." The denomination has 400 churches in the state and episcopal headquarters in Raleigh, it said.

Barber and others have accused the majority of trying to reverse decades of desegregation gains in public schools that sprang from the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.

"The historic Brown v. Board of Education legislation desegregated schools," Bishop Richard K. Thompson said in a statement. "However, we can no longer sit in our sanctuaries silent while it is evident that covert activities are turning back the hands of time."

Hard work ahead

The board controlling the 140,000-student system faces a new year with lower per-pupil spending, an increase in students and the job of designing the neighborhood schools system they have promised. In this climate, members of the board minority said they didn't see the logic behind such majority initiatives as ending long-standing associations with the state and national school board associations, actions approved last week.

"I am trying to really figure out what was behind dropping the school board memberships," board member Kevin Hill said Wednesday, noting that he won't even be able to pay out of pocket to attend the professional organization's training and events.

"All it will do is isolate us, unless it's an attempt to remove any vestiges of diversity."

Margiotta said the decision to withdraw from the state and national school board associations was strictly made for financial reasons. Wake paid $40,415 a year in membership dues.

"Next year, our budget situation will be more severe than we've ever had," Margiotta said. "We need to start saving money."

Staff writer T. Keung Hui contributed to this article.

thomas.goldsmith@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8929

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