APEX — Wake County school board Chairman Ron Margiotta and challenger Susan Evans painted sharply different pictures of the past two years during Tuesday's forum for District 8 candidates.
Margiotta touted accomplishments such as developing a new student assignment plan to promote neighborhood schools, approving funding for a new high school in Apex, hiring of Superintendent Tony Tata, and starting new academic programs while avoiding teacher layoffs despite funding cuts.
"Our school system has become more family-friendly, easier to manage and more responsive to parents," said Margiotta, 73, a retired small business owner seeking his third term to represent southwestern Wake.
But Evans argued that the school board's actions during Margiotta's tenure as chairman have hurt the reputation of the state's largest school district and polarized the community.
"We've been the laughingstock of national media," said Evans, 53, an accountant. "I don't think this is the change most people were asking for."
More than 150 people attended Tuesday's forum at the Cary C. Jones Community Building. It was sponsored by WakeUP Wake County and the League of Women Voters of Wake County.
5 seats on ballot
On Oct. 11, five of the nine school board seats will be on the ballot. Republicans hope to re-elect Margiotta and expand their 5-4 majority. Democrats would need to win all five seats to retake control of the board.
Margiotta was the lone voice lobbying for neighborhood schools for several years until the 2009 election of four new members propelled him into leading the board.
During the past two years, the board has pushed through changes such as eliminating the use of socioeconomic diversity as a factor in student assignment. Next week, Tata will present his proposal for a plan that would promote proximity as a priority in student assignments, effective for the 2012-13 school year.
Proponent of choice
"I'm a strong believer in neighborhood schools, and I wouldn't accept a plan that didn't give us that choice," Margiotta said.
The change in the assignment policy has sparked protests from critics such as Evans.
Evans said she understands the District 8 residents' frustration with frequent school reassignments. But she said that the board could develop a new plan that would provide families with stability and still provide balanced schools.
She cited an online survey, in which 94 percent of families responding said they'd like to stay at their current schools, as evidence that school board members can take their time in adopting a new assignment plan.
A bid for more time
"We have time to review this," Evans said. "We don't need to rush into it."
Evans argued neighborhood schools like the new high-poverty Walnut Creek Elementary School that opened in Southeast Raleigh are more expensive to operate.
"It's extremely important that we find ways to balance our populations because we don't have enough resources," Evans said.
"If we have to throw more resources into these schools, I've got a message for my suburban parents: They're going to have throw in resources from suburban schools."
But Margiotta argued that balanced schools should involve providing a challenging curriculum and not tailoring student assignment.
"For too long in this county, we've been assigning students for reasons that had nothing to do with community involvement or with student achievement," Margiotta said.