A long and argumentative year for the Wake County school board is nearing an end. But the one ahead looks to be at least as challenging - if not more so.
A heaping plateful of matters need addressing - most notably a projected budget shortfall of at least $100 million. Meanwhile, division and acrimony among board factions and community members show little sign of easing. The four Democratic and four Republican board members vote mostly in separate blocs, with GOP member Debra Goldman an unpredictable force in the middle.
"There will be continuing crises," said Chris Malone, a Republican board member and former Wake Forest town commissioner. "There will be people who claim they care for the children but are here to solely criticize us."
Democratic board member Keith Sutton, who has fought to retain the system's former diversity-based student assignment system, said, "When people are at a point where they refuse to work together no matter what, no matter how important it is, because relations are that strained, it certainly doesn't help the children or families of Wake County."
A year ago Wednesday, a charged-up new Republican majority began to transform the 143,000-student system - an institution that they said had grown arrogant, out of touch, and ill-equipped to meet the needs of students and families. Beginning with the majority's installation Dec. 1, sessions began to drag on for seven, 10 and 11 hours as those in favor of the now-discarded diversity policy fought change with speeches, marches, civil disobedience, arrests and, ultimately, complaints to the U.S. Department of Education and a key accrediting agency.
"I don't think anybody would have anticipated what we had to go through," Republican board member John Tedesco said of the uproar, which attracted national media attention. "I don't think anybody would have thought that addressing an inefficient and inequitable system would have led to a 1960s-style movement."
Key matters before the board as it enters its second year include:
Work on a budget for the growing system, with a projected shortfall of more than $100 million that is expected to lead to layoffs and deep cuts.
Completion of a new student assignment plan, beginning with a consensus-building plan passed over GOP objections.
Redistricting of the system's nine board member electoral zones for the next decade, based on the 2010 Census.
Cooperation with investigations by the U.S. Department of Education and theAdvancEd accrediting organization.
Campaigns by as many as five members who are up for election in October.
Hiring a new superintendent to permanently replace Del Burns, who quit because of the board's elimination of the diversity policy.
Malone said the panel's work will be just as divisive and even harder going forward.
"It will be loud," he said. "We'll try to be as constructive as we can be, but not everybody can agree on everything."
'Years in the making'
Board members interviewed for this story agreed that the budget crunch, including the unknown value of cuts by the hard-pressed state government, presents the largest obstacle for the coming year.
"People need to understand that the budget problems aren't going away," Tedesco said. "They were years in the making. It's going to be three or more years of cuts. There are going to have to be fundamental changes."
During this school year, the system got a status-quo allotment of $313 million from Wake County commissioners. With overall enrollment continuing to rise, per-student funding actually went down.
Sutton and former board Chairman Kevin Hill, both Democrats, say the system should seek more revenue rather than accepting the large-scale cutbacks that would result from state and federal spending cuts.
"If there are fees within the school, such as the fee that seniors pay for parking, we should be looking at some of those streams and maybe tapping into some new ones," Sutton said. "I get the sense that people understand the dire necessity to keep jobs and maintain the quality of our school system."
Hill favors asking for more local money even if it takes a property tax increase, something he realizes goes against the campaign promises of the new Republican majority on the county Board of Commissioners. "Make no mistake - there's going to be a negative impact on the classes," Hill said. "If we're not careful, it's going to have an impact that will be felt for years to come."
Malone said that the budget will be a rough one and that it will one of the top two issues for the coming year. The other is student assignment - a highly emotional topic that has pitted old Raleigh against the suburbs, magnet-school parents against families who say they have had no access to the program, and civil rights leaders against board members who say the issue of racial segregation has long been solved.
Tedesco had been at work on a 16-zone, community-based student assignment plan until Goldman and board Democrats voted it down Oct.5. Goldman has said she still favors a plan that emphasizes proximity, an approach that will likely result in high concentrations of minority and low-income students in Southeast Raleigh.
On Nov. 9, the board's four Democrats and Goldman joined forces again to pass a proposal by Hill to institute full-board discussions to agree on definitions, gather data and build consensus for a new school assignment plan that would take effect for the 2012-13 school year. Malone denounced the measure as "gobbledygook" and an attempt to stall until next year's school board elections.
Even Sutton isn't sure that the discussions, which will precede the development of a student-assignment plan, will work given the resistance of four angry Republicans.
"I don't know how much fruit it will bear; you can already see them not willing to participate," Sutton said. "It's a worthy, worthwhile process, but in the true meaning of the word consensus, I don't think it will happen. I remain cautiously optimistic."
While dismissing Hill's team-building approach, Tedesco warns that Goldman's insistence on coupling proximity with base schools will create more high-poverty schools and long-term problems than his zone plan would have created.
"People are going to wake up and be surprised to see what they have gotten," he said.
An ongoing search for a new superintendent and work on how to structure a school bond issue that could go before voters in 2012 add to the pile of urgent issues on board members' desks these days. School board Chairman Ron Margiotta said he expects the board to hire a superintendent by January.
Looking to October
Tedesco and other Republicans have said their plans to revamp student assignment in the long term may have to wait until they can build their majority in October elections, when the seats held by Margiotta, Hill, Sutton and Democratic members Carolyn Morrison and Dr. Anne McLaurin will be on the ballot. The coming elections could result in political theatrics as candidates jockey for attention, Tedesco said.
"The public was hoping to get change," he said. "They saw some change before it was stalled."
Margiotta, Sutton and Hill have said they will seek to stay on the board. Morrison has not decided whether to run for election. Efforts to reach McLaurin were unsuccessful.
The election will be complicated by redistricting that will follow the federal census. Given the likelihood that the board will approve districts more favorably disposed to one party than another, Goldman's swing vote will become more crucial than ever.
Cary resident Goldman, a former firefighter, has been keeping a low profile while questions swirl around her. Will she leverage her vote to become chairman after Margiotta's term expires in June? Will she continue to vote with Democrats on such crucial matters as redistricting and a final draft of the student assignment plan?
No one seems to know, and Goldman isn't saying. She will now comment only at public meetings.
"Our board is one that isvery sharply divided in terms of political philosophy; we all know that," Sutton said. "There's not much in politics that is as partisan as the redrawing of political boundaries."
Soon, two other powerful, unpredictable forces will make their presences known. One is the investigation by AdvancEd. Moved to probe Wake's practice by a complaint from the state NAACP, the national agency holds the power to withdraw accreditation from Wake's high schools. Such a development could impede students' bids to be admitted to some universities and to receive financial aid for college.
In addition, federal civil rights investigators from the U.S. Department of Education will examine the Wake system in response to complaints from the NAACP that the board is practicing racial discrimination through student assignment and other policies.
"It's going to be a busy year," Hill said. "I'm hoping all board members can decide things by listening to all board members instead of to the narrow considerations of each side."
News researcher Brooke Cain contributed to this report.
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