The Wake County school board election two years ago was a watershed. It brought to power a group of members who had vowed to push through dramatic policy changes. Now voters have a chance to answer that eternal question: "How's that working for you?"
Whatever the outcome, nobody should expect water to flow back uphill. Even as the change agents were terribly reckless, the turmoil they unleashed on North Carolina's largest school system has been accompanied by a greater appreciation of the strains many families feel.
It's hard to imagine any board member, even one who can see the folly in directions the board has gone under the control of a Republican-aligned majority, not taking seriously parental concerns about students being shuffled from school to school. In that regard, everyone in the running surely has learned his or her lesson.
At the same time, there is a world of difference between candidates in each of the five districts with seats to be filled in the Oct. 11 balloting. In each case, it could not be clearer which candidate would do more to advance the well-being of Wake's schools and students, and thus of the community at large.
And in each, the superior candidate is one who understands a basic, common-sense rule: When you find yourself (or your school board) in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.
The hole in this instance stemmed from the board majority's determination to get rid of a policy that had served the Wake schools well for three decades. It was an effort, recognized nationally as a worthy model, to keep the schools socioeconomically diverse, reflecting the community's overall makeup.
The goal was to make sure no schools served students drawn mostly from lower-income families. Absent costly extra resources, high-poverty schools apply a further drag on academic success among children who typically deal with more than their share of challenges already.
Over time, with the county's rapid growth, that goal in more and more cases was not being met, and there were troubling signs in graduation rates and test scores. But to the extent that diversity was maintained, students benefitted. And people moving into Wake could be confident that, wherever they chose to live, schools would be decent. Many were excellent. The system of magnet schools promoted both diversity and achievement.
The board has nine members, elected to staggered four-year terms. The four candidates who won in 2009 joined with incumbent Ron Margiotta of Apex to overturn the diversity policy, emphasizing instead what they touted as neighborhood schools. The risk was obvious: Given the county's housing patterns, some of those schools would be packed with kids from poor families.
The situation also took on a racial aspect, because family incomes tend to be lower among minorities. That led to complaints about the risks of resegregation - complaints that resonated far and wide, to Wake's embarrassment.
But the process of devising neighborhood attendance zones proved trickier than advocates had imagined. And one member of the five-person Republican majority, Debra Goldman of Cary, had second thoughts about where that process was heading. On some key votes, she sided with the four holdover members who had wanted to keep the diversity policy intact.
That was not enough to go back to the prior system, but it did clear the way for a search, under new Superintendent Tony Tata, for what could be seen as a middle ground. The most crucial aspect of the upcoming election is that it could well determine how that search plays out.
Unless there are enough members willing to apply the brakes, high-poverty schools still could be created within the kind of parental choice approach Tata has been pushing. Even if Tata seeks a compromise that would give poor kids a chance to attend higher achieving schools, it's the board that has the last word.
That is one compelling reason behind our conclusion that the county would be poorly served indeed if the views of Margiotta and his allies John Tedesco, Chris Malone and Deborah Prickett were reinforced by the election of more members who would join their bloc.
But this election is about more than simply avoiding folks who would send Wake's schools in the wrong direction. It's about taking advantage of a terrific crop of candidates who are well-suited to guide this school system to even greater heights. They're not blind to problems that need careful attention. But they want to build on past successes. These are the candidates who have earned The N&O's editorial endorsement.
The choice in this North Raleigh district is plain: Incumbent Kevin Hill has been a strong advocate for all the values that distinguished Wake's schools for many years. He recognizes the risks in neglecting diversity - the creation of "high-needs" schools that either soak up an outsized share of expensive resources or that betray the best interests of their students. At the same time, he appreciates the importance of letting kids go to school near where they live and of giving families choices of schools and programs.
As a former teacher and principal, Hill is properly focused on issues of academic quality and the funding needed to sustain it. His unflappable leadership as a constructive critic of the board majority has been invaluable, and he richly deserves another term.
Hill faces two main rivals. Jennifer Mansfield, an education activist, is aligned with neighborhood schools proponents. She questions how the choice-based assignment model Tata is developing would promote student achievement. Heather Losurdo, past president of the Northern Wake Republican Club, also wants students to succeed. But she fails to grasp how the board's policies, as influenced by her party, can work against that success. (School board races are supposed to be non-partisan, but this year both Republican and Democratic organizations are involved.)
Incumbent Keith Sutton, the board's only African-American member, has fought the good fight to try to keep Wake's schools from slipping into the kind of de facto segregation that marks many large systems serving urban neighborhoods. An appointee to fill a vacancy, Sutton should be returned by the voters of this district, which lies east of downtown Raleigh. He can be counted upon to support an assignment plan that lets inner-city kids choose to go to a high-achieving school.
His opponent, businesswoman Venita Peyton, who also is African-American, is a strong voice for uplift among disadvantaged residents. But she is too closely tied to the neighborhood school perspective. Most Wake students, if they choose to, already attend schools either in their neighborhoods or fairly close. But when neighborhoods are poor, other options must be available.
Distinction in the academic world is by no means the only gauge by which school board candidates should be judged. But it can be a good indicator, especially when the candidate is as sharp as Jim Martin, chemistry professor at N.C. State University.
Martin knows education, he knows the Wake schools and he understands what must be done to keep them strong. He rightly emphasizes the role of uniformly excellent schools in enhancing the county's attractiveness as a place to live, work and do business. He is committed to sound, orderly decision-making on the board - in contrast to the past year and a half, when key decisions often have been rushed through without sufficient analysis of costs or effects on the classroom.
Martin seeks to fill an open seat, being vacated by Anne McLaurin, in a district that extends from south-central Raleigh toward Fuquay-Varina. His opponent is Cynthia Matson, a campus director for ITT Technical Institute and a long-time advocate for greater parental choice in student assignment. She also dwells on the need for greater "program equity" among schools - a not-so-veiled slap at the popular magnet program (even though she says she's a magnet supporter).
Matson strikes a chord in championing opportunities for all students to excel. But Martin has a better grasp of how to ensure those opportunities, and he's just as committed to providing them. He also emphasizes the importance of stability in assignments - another sign that this year's crop of candidates, no matter their priorities, have gotten the message about parents' frustration. (Rapid growth has been the main reason for the shuffling - not the diversity policy as Matson and other critics of the policy imply.)
Martin, with a first-rate command of the issues and the kind of values that reflect Wake's long-standing commitment to good schools in every corner of the county, would be a splendid newcomer to the board.
The seat in this central Raleigh district also is coming open, as Carolyn Morrison steps down. Morrison - along with Hill, Sutton and McLaurin - has helped steer the board toward a more centrist course in which proximity to home is only one assignment factor. That philosophical balance has been crucial.
The candidate who is best equipped to follow in Morrison's footsteps is Christine Kushner, a parent who has been actively involved in the schools and who has a well-developed vision of how to make them better. Her own accomplishments, as a former Morehead Scholar and as a communicator and health policy analyst, bolster her credentials as someone who can recognize where Wake's schools need to improve as well as changes to avoid. She understands that it's hard for high-poverty schools to attract teachers who are up to the challenge of working with kids who often face many academic obstacles because of family circumstance.
Kushner's strongest opponent is Donna Williams, a former intensive care nurse and sales manager who was founding president of the Northern Wake Republican Club. She has been an active Wake school volunteer for her four children, now grown, and seven grandchildren. Her admirable desire to enhance student achievement mirrors Kush-ner's. But her opposition to the diversity policy shows a flawed understanding of how neighborhood schools could work against students' interests in poorer areas, even under the kind of parental choice model now being considered. Which schools would be on the menu of choices? Kushner is more likely to stand for a broader menu.
The conservative turnabout that threw the board's diversity policy on the scrap heap, caused the previous superintendent to quit, triggered protests by civil rights advocates and drew unflattering national attention was led by Ron Margiotta, a board member since first gaining a seat eight years ago. After four allies won office in 2009, the retired New Jersey businessman went from lonely critic to chairman. He now seeks a third term, promising to help steer a steady course toward neighborhood schools, parental choice and stronger academics.
These are all positive goals. However, Margiotta consistently has failed to recognize the harm that would be done, both to students and the community at large, if the new assignment model results in a proliferation of high-poverty, high-needs schools. He has argued that all students, including those from poor neighborhoods, are better served by attending schools close to home. That is not necessarily the case, if those schools must cope with the additional demands placed on them by students who often lack the kind of home and community support enjoyed by their middle-class peers. Margiotta's stance resonates among many in his suburban, southwest Wake district, but it does not do justice to the overall well-being of the school system and the young people it serves.
Attempting to unseat Margiotta is Susan Evans, who is equally attuned to parents' exasperation with shifting school assignments due to the district's rapid growth. She also has a well-rounded sense of how to respond to those concerns without losing ground in the school-improvement effort.
Evans is a CPA with business experience, and she has been an active community volunteer, including at the Wake schools her two children attended. She would like to see more magnet choices for students in her district, which also would help keep school enrollments socioeconomically balanced. Her logic is on target: As she told The N&O, "a scenario that would lead to a stratified system of schools, divided according to the 'haves' and the 'have-nots,' would be costly for our community. Higher-needs schools typically require more financial resources and yield poorer academic results."
Evans goes right to the heart of the decision that voters in these five school board districts will make. Her grasp of what's at stake - together with her pledge to operate in an open-minded, respectful manner befitting a board that answers to all county residents, whatever their family situation or political leanings - marks her as an ideal replacement for an incumbent who has disappointed in so many ways.