RALEIGH — Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker wants business, legal and community leaders to join him in scrutinizing the Wake County school board's evolving student reassignment plan, setting the stage for a potential lawsuit based on students' rights to the sound education guaranteed in the state constitution.
Amid more aggressive public opposition to the school board's Republican-backed majority, the mayor raised the possibility earlier this week of legal action to counter the board's recent decision to ditch the district's socioeconomic diversity policy and move toward neighborhood schools.
At an East Raleigh community meeting, Meeker, a Democrat who has served as Raleigh's mayor since 2001 and is married to school board member Anne McLaurin, sharply criticized the board majority. The mayor accused them of being outsiders bent on turning North Carolina's largest school district into enclaves of rich and poor schools.
"We have people who are not from the area, don't share our values, who are the majority on the school board," Meeker said during the meeting. School board members "are taking steps to have schools that have the majority of well-to-do people in one set of schools and not as well-to-do people and minorities in another set of schools."
The mayor's comments underscore a growing divide between Raleigh, long seen as the economic, political and cultural center of Wake County, and the 11 fast-growing suburbs that ring the state's capital, which have attracted newcomers to North Carolina in droves.
John Tedesco, the school board member in charge of crafting the new assignment plan, said Meeker doesn't control the school board.
"He can threaten all he wants to," said Tedesco, who lives in Garner. "This is a county made up of many towns. It's not the Raleigh school system; it's the Wake County school system."
About 40 percent of Wake students live in Raleigh, but many of the city's voters were in districts not involved in last October's elections, which brought in a new majority. The new members promised to switch to a community school system that would stop busing students long distances and would send students to schools near their homes.
Is a suit feasible?
Meeker is a lawyer who was reared in Washington, D.C., but moved to Raleigh in 1975. He wants civic groups and legal experts to determine whether there's a legal basis to challenge the unfinished assignment plan on constitutional grounds. The new school board hopes to have a plan by the end of next year that would divide Wake into different zones, with students going to schools closer to home.
Critics of the board's majority have warned that the move to neighborhood schools could result in de facto resegregation that would be devastating in areas with high concentrations of poverty, places such as Southeast Raleigh. But supporters say it would bring needed stability to families while still affording high-quality education to all students.
Meeker has reached out to the Raleigh Chamber of Commerce and the advocacy group Wake Education Partnership looking for help. .
Ann Denlinger, the education group's president and former superintendent of the Durham school system, said the partnership plans to review the new school board's assignment plan. The current school board isn't taking enough input from the public on what it plans to do, she said.
"If the public is not broadly involved in this process ... the plan itself will be short-lived and our school system will be damaged," Denlinger said.
Orage Quarles III, editor and publisher of The News & Observer, is on the education group's 29-member board of trustees, which includes government, civic and business leaders.
Harvey Schmitt of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce said the chamber is not committed to backing a future lawsuit, but is keeping close track of what effect the school board's reversal in policies is having on the business community.
Filed by individuals
Meeker said any lawsuit would be filed by individuals or civic groups, but not the city. The Rev. William Barber, head of the state chapter of the NAACP, has also repeatedly threatened to file a lawsuit on similar constitutional grounds. Barber was one of four civil rights activists arrested on second-degree trespassing charges after launching a protest at last week's school board meeting.
Ann Majestic, the school board attorney, said she didn't think a lawsuit such as one described by Meeker would succeed.. If going to a school with a majority of low-income and minority students represented a constitutional violation, Majestic said, the state would have to take action against several northeastern North Carolina counties. Although Meeker opposes the board majority, mayors of several other Wake towns support its actions, including Holly Springs Mayor Dick Sears. Sears said Meeker should consider the need for Wake's community values to reflect those of all the newcomers to this area. He pointed to Holly Springs' growth from less than 1,000 people in 1990 to about 25,000 now.
"Where I was brought up, the majority rules," said Sears, who moved to the area in 1995. "That doesn't mean you don't listen to the people who've been here for a long time. A lot of us were brought up on neighborhood schools and feel that's a good thing," said Sears.
Meeker spoke at the East Raleigh community meeting in response to a question from Rebecca Fernandez, who lives with her husband and two young children in East Raleigh's Lockwood neighborhood. Fernandez said she's worried that the elementary school closest to her, Powell Elementary, could become a school with a high percentage of impoverished students if it loses its magnet status.
"If we have to move because they destroyed the school, we will," Fernandez said.
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