RALEIGH — When Dr. Anne McLaurin decided that one term of representing school board District 5 was enough for her, two candidates to succeed her stepped up with strong, opposing views on the operation of Wake County schools.
And the competition between Democrat Jim Martin and Republican Cynthia Matson has grown hotter as the Oct. 11 election approaches.
Charges and countercharges over campaign tactics have mingled with the candidates' decidedly different views of how Wake's 146,000-student system should be governed.
District 5 runs all the way from Hillsborough Street down to southern portions of the county near Fuquay-Varina and eastern Cary. Matson, a director at ITT Technical Institute who made her mark by founding the anti-reassignment group Assignment by Choice in the early 2000s, stands with the board majority on issues such as eliminating diversity as a factor in student assignment.
"I feel like I'm truly representative of the county," she said. "It's a very diverse area."
Martin, an N.C. State University chemistry professor who has often addressed the school board in favor of diverse school populations, cites his academic experience, both as an educator and a veteran of organizational politics.
"I bring the perspective of a parent, the classroom experience of a teacher, and administrative and government experience," said Martin, a former president of the NCSU faculty. "I listen. I bring diverse perspectives together to find common solutions."
Since the election of a Republican majority in 2009, the Wake County school board has functioned largely in a strongly partisan atmosphere. Both Martin and Matson say they'd like to end the bickering if elected.
Martin has received donations from a group of Democratic officials and heavy hitters, including $8,000 from management consultants John and Ann Campbell, as well as varying amounts from McLaurin, Mayor Charles Meeker and former Mayor Smedes York.
Matson got support from Wake County Commissioner Tony Gurley, House Majority Leader Paul Stam and school board member John Tedesco, as well as conservative businessman Bob Luddy, who gave $4,000 to her campaign. But Martin has taken in far more in contributions.
"He has three times what I have, and I'm still going to win," Matson said.
On the budget
The candidates hold different positions on whether Wake County schools will require more money to keep up with growth in years to come.
"I'd like to see us make better use of the resources we do have," Matson said. "There are a lot of ways to manage the budget in a more fiscally responsible way."
In response, Martin pointed to a recent audit of system practices by the Broad Superintendents Academy, which found Wake to be lean in its spending compared with other systems its size. Martin also differed with Matson over her contention that Wake residents should consider themselves "customers" of the system.
Instead, he said, the designation "citizen" would be more fitting to describe people's relationship with the school system.
"I want to look at what was provided for me and make sure that I provide at least that for the next generation," Martin said.
Myriad questions lie ahead for board members to be elected in October and, if necessary, in a November runoff.
Views on diversity
In a way, Martin and Matson sum up the differences that have riven the panel for the past two years.
As a magnet parent, educator and activist, Martin sees peril in the kinds of changes the board has made. He worries that the school system will decline if diversity dwindles away and revenues decline.
For Matson, who helped spark a countywide reaction against reassignment, the new board has offered a fresh chance for the families who live outside the Beltline and want equal advantages for their children, fewer long bus rides and an emphasis on matters other than diversity.
But they share some of the same concerns.
Martin said he has recognized for years that stability of assignments is a problem. "If a student is moved year after year, you don't build that rapport," he said.
Matson agrees that diversity is valuable but not as a mandate. She's a supporter of the still-developing assignment plan crafted by Tata and administrators.
"I feel like it needs to be a parent's choice," she said. "If there are going to be five or six schools to choose from, some of them are going to be diverse and some are not. At least there are choices."