GOP disputes video concerning Wake school board elections

Charges called 'outright lies'

Staff writersAugust 18, 2011 

  • The controversy over the clip recalls a period this year when media outlets from The Washington Post to "The Colbert Report" focused attention on Wake County's nearly two-year fight over the direction of its schools after a Republican-backed majority took control in 2009.

    The majority voted last year to end a policy of assigning students based on family income.

    The decision came over objections of supporters of the former policy, whose complaints escalated to protests and arrests that generated national media coverage. The state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People also filed a pair of complaints with the U.S. Department of Education and AdvancED, the group that accredits Wake's high schools.

    Supporters of the policy change argue that allowing students to attend schools closer to home will benefit families and possibly improve academic performance. Critics of the change argue that it will lead to the creation of extremely high-poverty, racially segregated schools.

    Wake school leaders have been ironing out the fine points of the new plan since May.

    The school system is still working out an alternative. And discussion over whether diversity should be a part of student assignment remains to be resolved.

— Local Republicans are disputing a viral Internet video that claims a pair of conservative billionaire brothers poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into Wake County's 2009 school board elections with the goal of eliminating the county's diversity-based assignment plan.

"Koch Brothers Exposed" debuted Monday on YouTube and turned up on left-wing outlets such as the Huffington Post website and "The Ed Show" on MSNBC.

The 11-minute clip charges that Charles and David Koch, who have made a fortune in the energy business, used intermediaries to fund campaigns of school board candidates who ultimately voted to do away with the busing policy.

The video credits Americans for Prosperity, a group funded by the Koch brothers, for getting the majority elected.

But local Republicans say the video doesn't prove its claim.

"The video is more than a gross distortion; it is a series of outright lies," said Dallas Woodhouse, state director of Americans for Prosperity. "Some select media have repeated and expanded on these false claims, which impugn the good name of Americans for Prosperity."

The nonprofit Americans for Prosperity works to fight tax increases and wasteful spending. It is legally prohibited from campaigning for specific candidates.

Woodhouse angrily denounced the clip, calling for retractions from the film's producer and the Huffington Post.

The Huffington Post issued a correction Wednesday on the charges it had made that Americans for Prosperity had "bankrolled" the winning candidates.

Neither the new video nor the local people interviewed for it offer concrete evidence of monetary or other donations specifically aimed at the 2009 school board elections.

"Americans for Prosperity did not get involved in these elections before they happened," said Perry Woods, a local Democratic consultant, who worked for several of the losing candidates in 2009.

Woods is quoted in the clip as saying: "Americans for Prosperity will end up creating resegregated schools and harming us economically in the long run."

And interviewee BobGeary, a staff writer at the Independent weekly newspaper, did not directly back up his statement in the video, in which he said Americans for Prosperity poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the election.

"It was a fair statement in the context in which I made it, which was a discussion of the long campaign waged against the Wake School Board by Americans for Prosperity," Geary said. "It is not my place to defend or rebut (the) thesis in the video; it is their thesis, not mine."

Director's defense

Robert Greenwald, director of the video, said Wednesday that its intent was to show that long-term efforts by Americans for Prosperity helped create an environment in which candidates could craft a winning campaign on opposing the school board.

"We wanted to show that the long campaign from Americans for Prosperity was the most important factor and the result was an election win," Greenwald said.

'Libelous' statements

Woodhouse, in an interview Wednesday, accused Greenwald of changing his story from the video, which is one of several he plans to produce on the Koch brothers.

"The video accused us of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote, train and nominate candidates," Woodhouse said. "What they're saying now is not what they're saying in the video. They can't back up their libelous statements."

Sue Sturgis, who spoke in the clip for the Institute for Southern Studies, responded to a reporter's questions by referencing a new entry from her blog, citing several instances of Woodhouse's encouragement of the change in leadership on the board on the Americans for Prosperity website.

"AFP-NC's investment in organizing around the Wake County school board can be traced back at least to the 2006 midterm election, when there was a $970 million local school bond issue on the ballot," Sturgis wrote. "AFP-NC took the lead in organizing opposition to the bond, using the controversy over student assignment as one of its rallying points. The group also worked closely with a number of local organizations that would later play an important role in the 2009 election."

Content not questioned

The national airing on MSNBC appeared not to question any aspect of the video, accompanying portions of it showing arrests at the school board with an interview with Greenwald.

"Why were those folks fighting arrests at a school board meeting?" cable host Ed Schultz asked. "Just ask billionaire barons Charles and David Koch."

Goal never reached

Following the video's lead, the MSNBC show and other outlets said Wake schools were allowed to have no more than 40 percent students on free and reduced priced lunches to balance each school's population.

While that was once a system goal, it was never reached at every school and more than a third of the schools in the system eventually exceeded the goal before the policy was eliminated.

School board Vice Chairman John Tedesco, one of the winning candidates in 2009, said the video is a disservice to all the grass-roots support that came together to help the new majority get elected.

"It's the most absolutely ridiculous thing I've ever viewed," Tedesco said.

thomas.goldsmith@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8929

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