Wake school board claims mandate

Staff WritersNovember 4, 2010 

— RALEIGH -- Emboldened by the Republican sweep of county commissioners' seats, GOP members of the Wake school board said Wednesday that the public has given them a mandate to move ahead on community schools and the elimination of diversity-based student assignments.

During the campaign, local and state Democratic leaders attempted to rally voters to back their candidates and send a message against the GOP-backed Wake County school board's elimination of the diversity policy. But Republicans won all four seats on Tuesday's ballot to gain a majority on the board of commissioners, which controls more than a quarter of the school board's budget.

"The people are saying, 'Leave the school board alone; let them do what they were elected to do on student assignment,'" said Republican school board member Chris Malone. "People want the school board to succeed and do their business."

GOP school board Chairman Ron Margiotta said he'll press for more changes to next year's assignment plan to eliminate what he called the most flawed examples of diversity-based assignments. On Oct. 5, Vice Chairwoman Debra Goldman, a Republican, joined Democrats in a resolution that halted work on a zone-based assignment plan and called for making only minor adjustments to next year's assignments.

"The results of last night's elections will help push things along," Margiotta said.

Whatever direction the school board takes, newly elected Commissioner Phil Matthews said the growing school district, North Carolina's largest, should not expect relief from a property-tax increase.

"No sir, no sir," said Matthews, a fiscal conservative who defeated Democratic incumbent Lindy Brown in the closest contest for commissioner Tuesday. "People can't handle that right now. I hope the school board is going to keep things tight as they can."

GOP school board member John Tedesco said he'd be happy to get the same amount from the commissioners next year.

Democratic school board member Keith Sutton cautioned against seeing Tuesday's results as a mandate to make assignment changes.

No school referendum

"I certainly don't see it as a referendum on the community wanting neighborhood schools or more reassignments," he said.

Mack Paul, chairman of the Wake County Democratic Party, called the local election results a reflection of the national mood.

Jack Nichols, a Democratic candidate for commissioner, added, "Clearly, Republican commission candidates benefited from the wave." He lost to Republican Commissioner Paul Coble.

But Tedesco countered those assertions, pointing to strong performances by Democrats in congressional and state legislative races in Wake.

Tedesco was one of four board members elected last fall who joined Margiotta in a new GOP majority that eliminated the use of diversity as a factor in student assignments. But the school board has recently hit a roadblock in developing the assignment system. Goldman voted with four Democrats to kill the zone-based plan, leaving most of the previous diversity-based assignment plan in effect.

Yevonne Brannon, a former commissioner and now chairwoman of the Great Schools Coalition, which supported the diversity policy, said the ball is squarely in the GOP's court after elections Tuesday.

"Now that they control the group of people who set policy and the group of people who fund our schools locally, I think it's very likely that they will be on the same page," Brannon said. "And the people will be able to judge very clearly whether they do or do not deliver quality education to Wake County."

After the vote last month killed work on a plan to divide the county into 16 zones, Democratic school board member Kevin Hill has urged taking a more deliberate approach to a new plan. The board will discuss his proposal Tuesday.

In the meantime, business leaders have education consultant Michael Alves to develop a plan that uses student achievement as one measure for helping determine assignments.

The run-up for this year's commissioners' races began almost as soon as last year's school board elections ended.

Groups that supported the diversity policy turned to the commissioners to use their fiscal control to stop the school board. In April, the state Democratic Party announced a campaign effort to recruit volunteers to fight the school board's elimination of the diversity policy. During the campaign, Democratic candidates, particularly Nichols, stressed the election's role as a referendum on the school board.

Last week, the state Democratic Party mailed a campaign flier warning that Wake County could go back to the days of "separate, but not so equal" schools if the Republicans gained control of the board of commissioners.

"They're calling us names, saying we're resegregationists," Malone said of Democrats. "Then they turn around and call us demagogues?"

Paul, the Wake Democratic chairman, said the real test of public sentiment will come next year when five of the nine school board seats are on the ballot.

"Wake County residents who care about education are very concerned about the current direction of the school board," Paul said. "I think that will play out next year in school board races, in a favorable way to Democratic candidates who have expressed those concerns about the current direction."

Moving forward, Margiotta, Tedesco and Malone said they expect to enjoy better relations with the county commissioners and the state legislature now that they're also led by Republican majorities.

"We have things we need to get done," Margiotta said. "We'll have a better chance of getting it done with people who are willing to listen to us instead of trying to punish us."

keung.hui@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4534

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