Meeker wants panel to scrutinize school reassignments

Staff writerSeptember 28, 2010 

— Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker is wading into the Wake County schools debate again, this time quietly assembling a group of town mayors who would select “high level” residents to scrutinize the student assignment plan currently being developed by the school board.

Meeker and Knightdale Mayor Russell Killen want mayors countywide to recruit citizens with educational or legal experience to meet and determine whether the preliminary assignment plan “complies with state statutory and constitutional standards,” Meeker said.

Both Meeker and Killen, who work in the same Raleigh law firm, have called mayors from most Wake municipalities in recent days to garner support for a citizens committee Meeker says he will participate in as a "facilitator."

On Tuesday, though, Killen distanced himself from Meeker’s interest in a legal review, but said he still wants to form a group of citizens selected by participating Wake mayors to study the student assignment plan. Killen also said he doesn’t plan to sit in on the committee’s discussions.

The plan currently before the school board’s assignment committee eliminates a longstanding student assignment policy based on socioeconomic diversity in favor of one that divides the county into 16 community school zones and emphasizes placing students in schools close to their homes. The plan could change, school board members say, after they hear citizen feedback.

“Our goal is to get an objective group, to get good advice and see if it’s a good plan or bad plan that needs some changes,” said Meeker, Raleigh’s five-term mayor.

This is not the first time Meeker, who is married to school board member Dr. Anne McLaurin, has ventured into the acrimonious Wake schools debate. In June, Meeker said he wanted business, legal and community leaders to join him in reviewing the school board’s plan, raising the possibility of legal action in the future if the board’s plan seemed to violate a student’s right to a sound education, which the state constitution requires.

In late June, Meeker drew the ire of the school board majority and county Republicans who support them when he said the board's ruling coalition ''are not from the area" and "don't share our values." Meeker, a supporter of the district's discarded diversity policy, is a lawyer who was raised in Washington, D.C. but moved to Raleigh in 1975. Meeker made his comments at a community meeting in East Raleigh.

Meeker said the group of mayors and citizens he is now trying to assemble has a similar aim. He said he waited to see if either the Wake Education Partnership, a nonprofit advocacy group that supports public schools, or the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce would review the plan before he took action.

“Those groups are creating their own assignment proposal, and there really isn’t anyone looking at the current plan from a state law perspective,” said Meeker, whose wife is a member of the Wake school board minority.

But not all of Wake’s 12 mayors are on board. Some are sharply critical of Meeker’s initiative and don’t want to be a part of it.

“I’m not sure what having yet another group of individuals giving their opinion is going to do,” Cary Mayor Harold Weinbrecht said. “As of right now, I don’t think it’s in the best interest of Cary to be involved with something perceived to be political.”

Holly Springs Mayor Dick Sears said he wanted to know more about it. Rolesville Mayor Frank Eagles slammed Meeker for trying to be “king” of Wake County, and Wake Forest Mayor Vivian Jones said she wouldn’t participate.

“That is a job for the school board,” Jones said. “I don’t think the mayors looking at it is necessarily an appropriate thing to do. I wouldn’t want the school board to come in and look at what I’m doing. We have to let them do their job.”

Apex Mayor Keith Weatherly, who has strongly supported the school board majority, said the move was political on Meeker’s part – but that his town would participate.

“If they’re going to constitute some group, then I will certainly pick somebody from our town to represent us and certainly make our views known,” he said.

Mayors John Byrne, of Fuquay-Varina, Ronnie Williams, of Garner, Jackie Holcombe, of Morrisville, Harold Broadwell, of Wendell, and Bob Matheny, of Zebulon, said they supported forming a separate group.

“Between the 12 [mayors], we represent a great, great majority of Wake County,” Matheny said. “They should listen to us, and I’m not sure, frankly, if this school board wants to listen to anybody except the people who sing their song.”

The board majority’s push to change the assignment policy has drawn scrutiny from the NAACP, which has filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education. Advancing Excellence in Education Worldwide, or AdvancED, a Georgia-based accreditation firm, has also threatened to pull its certification from all Wake high schools if the district doesn’t hand over documents that detail policy decisions made since the new school board took over in December.

Killen said he doesn’t think starting a different committee would step on the school board’s toes.

“It is easier to get feedback when you know you have representation from across the community, and you’re going to put them in a room together and get a back and forth dialogue,” he said. “The idea is not to make this a political committee... so hopefully [the school board] will be open to it and listen to it.”

Meeker said he will facilitate the committee, but he doesn’t know how often they’ll meet, or exactly what role mayors or residents will play. He said the group would be nonpartisan and objective.

Weinbrecht said he wouldn’t know who to recruit to the group.

“Cary is very divided over this issue,” he said. “I’m afraid we are going to end up with people who are going to have a bias.”

An initial meeting could take place in two weeks, Meeker said, depending on when the board adopts the assignment plan.

Retired attorney Eric Braun will do staff work for the committee. Braun has discussed land use issues before the Raleigh City Council and told Meeker he was free to help with any issues after he retired earlier this year. All the work is pro bono, and no city staff members are involved.

“It is an unusual situation,” Meeker said. “But the kinds of changes in the proposed assignment plan are so serious that mayors really do need to get involved.”

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