GREENSBORO — Wake County school board Chairman Ron Margiotta held firm Thursday that the school system will no longer mandate diversity in student assignments even as he lobbied for the support of business leaders who are wary of the changes.
The county's business community has historically been a strong supporter of the school system and its now-discarded socioeconomic diversity policy. Amid repeated calls for the audience to keep an open mind, Margiotta urged members of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce to cooperate with the school board as it moved to community- based schools.
"As a business person, sometimes you as leaders must make decisions that employees and perhaps your customers don't like or understand," Margiotta said. "During these times, I bet you asked them to give your idea a chance to work. That is what I'm asking of you today. Give us the opportunity to prove that we can make it work."
Margiotta was speaking at the chamber's Summer Leadership Conference at the Grand over Resort in Greensboro.
How well Margiotta's message will be received remains to be seen. The chamber's leaders spoke out on the issue this year by adopting diversity as one of their guiding principles for student assignment in Wake.
"There's no dispute that the previous system needed changes," said Harvey Schmitt, president of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce. "Rewarding families with stability and choice are laudable goals. But listening to the concerns of the community needs to be part of the plan."
Supporters of the diversity policy have led heated protests, and the state NAACP filed a complaint that is the basis for a special review team coming to look at the accreditation of Wake's 24 high schools. More than 30 people have been arrested for disrupting school board meetings.
The protests are coming at the same time that a school board committee is developing a plan to divide the county into community assignment zones designed to allow children to go to schools near where they live.
Business leaders have liked how the diversity policy helped avoid creating extremely high- poverty and low-performing schools, allowing them to market Wake nationally.
But Margiotta argued that the diversity policy covered up the poor performance of individual students.
Margiotta noted that Wake's graduation rates for black, Hispanic and low-income students are below the state average. He also noted how black and low-income students in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system are outperforming their peers in Wake on state reading and math tests.
"The busing policy intended to help the economically disadvantaged, but it has not," Margiotta said.
Margiotta also noted the "multitudes of frustrated parents having children reassigned each year."
Margiotta received several questions about including diversity in the new assignment policy. He initially said he didn't see how diversity and choice could be incorporated before adding that diversity would be accomplished through the placement of students in magnet schools.
Jim Beck, chairman of the chamber's education committee, asked Margiotta about finding a way to honor the values of people in the community who support diversity while also honoring the board majority's values.
"There is a need for change," Beck said. "None of us is happy with the situation. But if we're going to come together, we need to acknowledge all our values."
Margiotta responded that diversity will be accomplished through parental choice and not be forced by the school system.
"Diversity will be part of the plan but it will be the natural result of choice in schools," Margiotta said.
Margiotta told business leaders that the board is looking at ways to improve student achievement.
Margiotta said the business community can help. One example he cited was finding the resources to recruit and compensate principals to work at weak schools.
Margiotta may not run
Also Thursday, Margiotta, 72, whose district includes Apex and Holly Springs, told the crowd that he's 95 percent leaning against running for re-election next year. Critics of the board majority would have to win all five seats on the ballot next year to regain control.
School board member Keith Sutton, a member of the minority faction on the board, attended the meeting Thursday. He said he's skeptical that Margiotta answered the concerns of business leaders but that he's willing to work with all parties.
"The business community wants to see the board working together," Sutton said.
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