RALEIGH — Most Republicans on the Wake County school board are bemoaning the loss of their majority for neighborhood schools, a serious blow to their mission to phase out the former board's diversity-based student assignment plan.
The lamenters, who include Chairman Ron Margiotta, said it will require gaining a new majority next year in elections to break the panel's stalemate and push through the changes they've promised in the state's largest school district.
At the heart of their frustration is board Vice Chairwoman and fellow Republican Debra Goldman, who joined Democrats in killing development of a zone-based plan which could have been partially initiated next year.
"Right now, those who believe in forced busing and socioeconomic engineering have found a new ally," said Republican board member John Tedesco, head of the committee that had developed the now-defunct zone-based plan.
Former Goldman allies are now chastising her for voting against the zone plan and for considering a more deliberate approach to student assignment advocated by Democrats.
"We're not a majority," said board member Deborah Prickett, a Republican. "We don't have the fifth vote, and she seems to be on the other side. ...I don't know where she stands."
Goldman did not respond to requests for an interview.
Some members of the former board majority also complain that Goldman's action means that the 2011-12 student assignment plan will be mostly left in place, using for a third year the plan laid out under the previous board's diversity-based assignment policy.
On Friday, Margiotta sent e-mail to school staff members to ask whether the current board's decision to discard diversity as a factor in assignments was being honored in assignments for 2011-2012. If not, he was asked, is the former policy of busing for diversity still in effect?
Laura Evans, Wake's senior director of growth management, replied that they'll likely change which areas are assigned to the new Walnut Creek Elementary School in Southeast Raleigh to reflect the new assignment policy. They're not planning, however, to make other major changes around the county for next year.
Even if the zone plan had been completed, it's unlikely that most of the diversity-related moves would have been eliminated next year. But Tedesco said they would have made some changes indicative of what they intended to do.
Goldman has insisted that she still supports community-based schools but disagrees with the zone plan that was being developed, without the base assignments she wanted. Her former allies are questioning why she didn't mention base assignments in the resolution she backed.
"She showed a lack of commitment to her previous commitment that she made in the campaign," Margiotta said. "Honestly, my approach right now is to let things quiet down," he said, citing the need to move forward with picking a new superintendent and other matters.
Democratic members of the school board, however, are praising Goldman for her bipartisanship.
"Student assignment doesn't need to be partisan," said board member Keith Sutton, a Democrat. "Student assignment has never been a partisan issue."
(Though school board members have aligned themselves publicly with a political party, the board elections are officially nonpartisan.)
The board members elected last fall joined incumbent Margiotta in adopting a policy that eliminated diversity as a factor in student assignment. But making a new assignment model a reality proved more difficult.
On Oct. 5, Goldman joined the four Democratic board members in passing a resolution to stop work on a plan that would have divided the county into 16 zones. The zone plan would have used stability, choice and proximity of a school to a family's home as priorities, but would also have eliminated the use of a specific school assignment for every address.
Then last week, former board Chairman Kevin Hill proposed taking more time to get community opinion and consider financial costs before determining school assignments.
The board will discuss Hill's suggestions Nov. 9.
"It's more important that we do it correctly than we do it quickly," said Hill, a Democrat.
But as soon as the idea was presented, Republican board members called it a stall tactic to prevent the plan from being developed before the 2011 school board elections, so that Democrats can try to regain the majority.
"I bet you dollars to doughnuts in the first meeting in December  they'll rescind [the new assignment policy] and go back to the way it was because we won't have built the infrastructure," said board member Chris Malone, a Republican.
Five up for re-election
Five of the nine board seats will be on the ballot next year, including the ones held by the four Democrats and Margiotta, who announced last week that he changed his mind and will run for re-election. The Democrats would have to win all five seats to have a majority.
The Republican board members said they'd want to win at least two of the seats next year so that they'll have a large enough majority that Goldman wouldn't be a swing voter.
"What you really have now is four and four and one," Tedesco said.
But Hill and Sutton insist that school board elections next year had nothing to do with the proposal to go more slowly.
"It's not an attempt to stalemate but to move forward," Sutton said. "It will be a slow and deliberate pace."
Sutton said the new approach will allow board members to build consensus.
"The majority that you will see emerging is what people expect to see from leadership," Sutton said. "Leadership is ... listening to others, being respectful of others, being inclusive."
"Consensus is the lack of leadership," he said. "We need leadership, not consensus. Consensus means drawing up a plan that doesn't offend anyone and that usually results in a bad plan."
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