RALEIGH — In a surprise reversal, the Wake County school board threw out its controversial, 16-zone student assignment plan Tuesday night on a motion by vice chairwoman Debra Goldman, who spent much of the meeting complaining about being shut out of the development of the plan.
Months of work by a Republican board majority elected last fall were cast aside in moments as Goldman, also one of those Republican newcomers, broke away and joined the former minority members, all Democrats, in a 5-3 vote to scrap the plan.
A directive passed out by Keith Sutton, a member of the minority who supported the board's old assignment policy, called for the following action: "Any and all efforts to create a zone-based assignment model will cease effective immediately."
The motion underwent brief discussion by the board after a series of meetings that had already lasted for nearly five hours. Goldman made the motion and Sutton seconded it. The motion means that the board will go back to the drawing board and proceed at a more deliberate pace, with more community input, as it crafts a new plan, Goldman said.
But on a night where she was the target of insults and accusations from her fellow Republican board members, Goldman stressed that the vote doesn't mean a return to the old student assignment policy that gave weight to diversity and reaffirmed her commitment to community-based schools.
"I have been discussing this for months," Goldman said during a break after the directive passed. She had complained in recent days that board chairman Ron Margiotta and student assignment committee chairman John Tedesco had excluded her and others from the process. Margiotta didn't cast a vote on the motion because Goldman's defection ensured the measure's success without a tie.
"This is a full committee that was giving input, but the plan was going forward in a way that didn't suggest that," she said.
Tedesco, offering a handshake, approached Goldman before they left dais, saying, "I've enjoyed our friendship while it lasted."
The startling change occurred after signs that Wake County's school board majority was ready to implode. Members had tossed insults and engaged in verbal warfare over the ongoing development of the student assignment plan. At one point, Tedesco called Goldman "a prom queen." The controversy seems certain to continue.
Despite the vote, Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, a group that supported the old diversity policy, said she's still concerned that the new resolution doesn't call for promoting balanced schools.
Goldman was one of four new members elected last fall on a campaign to end the socioeconomic diversity policy in favor of moving to neighborhood schools. Despite Goldman's rejection of the plan that was being developed to divide the county into 16 zones, Goldman said Wake will still move toward community-based schools.
Shortly after she broke ranks with the majority, Tedesco angrily accused Goldman of trying to get more publicity for herself rather than trying to change the assignment plan.
"This wasn't a win for community schools," Tedesco said. "This wasn't a win for the diversity policy. This was a win for Debra Goldman."
Tedesco said there was nothing he felt they could have done differently to keep Goldman's support. He said his opponents on the board had "played [Goldman] like a fiddle" to get her support.
"She's not a swing vote," Tedesco said. "I'm ready to be done with her."
School board member Keith Sutton said he had conversations with Goldman over the weekend about the new resolution. He said he had drafted it with the help of board member Kevin Hill.
Sutton said that he hasn't given up hope of restoring elements of the old socioeconomic diversity policy, despite Goldman saying they're not going back to the old way. But, Sutton said, Tuesday's action was a first step.
"We wanted to slow down and halt the work of the assignment committee," Sutton said. "As we heard from the people who spoke, what was going on was a train wreck waiting to happen."
Board member Dr. Ann McLaurin said Goldman was influenced by highly negative reactions at community meetings to the zone-based plan.
"We have a good system and we should try to make it better, not break it into pieces," McLaurin said.
Under the directive passed by the board, the system will continue to operate under the three-year assignment plan running through the 2011-12 school year passed by the previous board. However, it will also follow the revised student assignment policy the new board passed, which eliminated diversity as an indicator for assignments.
Things get testy
During a preliminary afternoon meeting, Goldman had accused others among the five-member bloc of trying to shut her and the public out of the process as the new plan is developed. Tedesco, chairman of the student assignment committee, accused Goldman of grandstanding in front of the cameras.
"I have grave concerns about the way this plan is being presented," Goldman said.
And during an earlier break, Goldman and board chairman Ron Margiotta confirmed that they and Tedesco had a private meeting at her home last week in which she said she was asked not to publicly voice her concerns about the assignment policy. The meeting appeared not to violate open meetings law, because a quorum of the nine board members was not present, but will likely raise questions about the openness of the board's decision-making.
During the full board meeting, members got an earful from parents whose children would be reassigned under the zone plan, which members said was far from complete. They joined longtime critics of the board's decision to discard diversity as a key factor in assignments in an hour and a half of mostly critical statements.
During the public hearing, Mary Phillips, the mother of a ninth-grader at Fuquay High School, complained about the reassignment of her node, or section of a neighborhood. She was also irked about the entire way the board is approaching a new plan
"You can't jerk us around like puppets," Phillips said. "No one I talk to is happy with what y'all are doing."
Goldman's opening remarks triggered a lengthy and often heated verbal exchange between her and other members of the majority faction. Goldman had been on the winning side of 5-4 votes on issues such as eliminating the diversity policy.
Goldman complained that the only voices heard in the three-member student assignment committee were those of Tedesco and committee member Chris Malone. The committee had been working on a plan that called for dividing the county into 16 school assignment zones that would stress proximity to the family home, stability and family choice.
She complained the zone plan didn't include guaranteed school assignments for every address.
"Every time you have a meeting the temperature in the community rises," Goldman said to Tedesco.
A look at Alves' plan
After the meeting, she said she would be interested to see a plan devised by Massachusetts educational consultant Michael Alves, but noted that his plan will also rely on zones, which she rejects.
Malone urged his colleagues to "calm down a little bit."
"Nobody should think what they see in the maps is the end all, be all," Malone said. "Stick with us. Pay attention. Things will be alright."
Goldman said they don't have to tear apart the current assignment plan to make a new one work.
"You're building on a foundation that hasn't been approved by the board," Goldman said.
The complaints continued even during the next discussion topic: the search for a new superintendent. Goldman heads that committee.
Tedesco complained that they still don't have criteria for a new superintendent.
"Now, John, don't get all upset," Goldman said. "Calm yourself down."
Tedesco shot back at Goldman: "You calm down, prom queen."
Public comment at previous meetings typically centered on changes in the former assignment policy, which used diversity as a key factor. Speaking in aid of that cause was Meredith College student Montserrat Alvarez, who said she had been bused from Southeast Raleigh to Western Wake for elementary and middle schools. She is now the first person in her immigrant family to attend college.
"It gave me an opportunity to break the cycle," Alvarez said. "I have made it my mission to fight for equal opportunity for all."
Phillips, the Fuquay-Varina mother, said she had never attended a board meeting before, and was not impressed by what she saw.
"Some of the behavior. from some of the board members was appalling," she said. "I was blown away."
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