Two years ago, Democrats accused the Republican majority on the Wake County school board of moving too quickly with the major changes it was making.
Now that Democrats have completed a sweep of the five board seats on this year's ballot to take a 5-4 majority, they'll have to decide how quickly they should act to undo or modify the changes made since 2009.
While the new Democratic majority that will take office Dec. 6 may want to make changes to the recently adopted student assignment plan, it also will have to wrestle with big issues such as a painful new budget and the timing and details of a new bond issue.
"We will be very deliberative," said Christine Kushner, one of the new Democratic school board members elected last month. "I expect us to exercise good governance."
Supporters of the ousted Republican majority also will be watching to see whether Democrats stick to their promises about just making revisions to the assignment plan and not going back to square one. Republicans also will be monitoring whether the change in board leadership affects the tenure of Superintendent Tony Tata, who was hired on a party-line vote last year.
Republican candidate Heather Losurdo, whose defeat in the runoff Tuesday led to the new Democratic majority, was already telling reporters soon after the results came in that she feared for the future of Tata and the school system.
"My fears are that we'll see happen with Superintendent Tata what we saw happen with Del Burns," she said. "I hope that doesn't happen. We'll just have to see."
Burns resigned as superintendent in 2010 not long after the new Republican majority took office. He said he couldn't in good conscience carry out policies such as ending the use of busing for socioeconomic diversity. The question on the minds of many Wake County residents is what the new majority will do on student assignment.
Although the Republican majority had voted last year to eliminate the use of socioeconomic diversity as a factor in assigning students, it wasn't until last month that the board adopted a new plan for determining where children will go to school. The new choice-based plan slated to go into effect next year stresses proximity while also promoting stability, choice and student achievement.
Not 'going backwards'
During the runoff campaign, Losurdo and board Vice Chairman John Tedesco had charged that a new Democratic majority would change the assignment plan to institute "forced busing."
Democratic incumbent Kevin Hill, who defeated Losurdo on Tuesday, has said repeatedly that the old diversity policy is "water under the bridge." Wake can't go back to using family income because officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture still say that free-and-reduced-price lunch data can't be used for assigning students.
Kushner echoed Hill in saying she expects the new majority to move forward with the new plan while making revisions.
"This is the plan," Kushner said. "We're going to go forward with. it. We're not going backward."
But Democrats have talked about making changes to enhance the student achievement component. For instance, Hill has said he wants a fixed percentage of seats set aside at high-performing schools in case applicants from low-performing areas want to attend.
But if not enough low-performing students apply, resulting in the creation of low-achieving schools, the new majority may feel pressure to change the choice options or even compel some students to go to specific schools.
Republican school board member Chris Malone said he sees difficult times ahead for Wake County schools under the new majority.
"...We're going to go back to forced busing because of set-asides. Maybe not right away, but eventually," he said.
A pressing question
An even more pressing question is whether the new majority will let the assignment plan go into effect for the 2012-13 school year. New board members Suzan Evans and Jim Martin had both said the Oct. 18 vote on the plan should be delayed. Evans also has said that she wouldn't mind if the plan were delayed a year.
Democratic school board member Keith Sutton, who was elected last month, said Tuesday that he saw no reason to delay the plan. "More than anything, I think, we'll be able to improve the process by which we move things along."
Another issue to watch is the impact the election results could have on the ongoing federal civil rights investigation into Wake's elimination of the diversity policy. Recently, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who is ultimately in charge of the review, said he was watching the runoff election "very closely."
But no matter how long the new majority may want to spend on student assignment, they'll soon have to confront next year's budget woes.
A major budget challenge for the board will be trying to avoid laying off teachers despite losing the nearly $30 million in one-time federal money that paid for more than 500 teaching positions this year.
For the past two years, the Republican majority chose not to ask county commissioners for an increase in funding, resulting in a drop in per-pupil funding.
The new school board majority could ask for more money that would result in a tax increase. But that would likely face a stern reaction from the GOP-led commission, especially during an election year in which two Republican commissioners are seeking higher office. If commissioners say no, the school board could seek mediation and even legal action, but that would be a long and combative process.
The question of whether Tata will still be here to run the district became a campaign issue in the hands of Losurdo.
She had charged that a new Democratic majority would have enough votes to fire Tata or cause him to resign because of philosophical differences with the new leadership. Hill has said he would not support firingTata, whose contract runs for three more years.
Tata addressed the issue of his job status during a press conference last week.
"So long as I stay focused on parents and students and ensure that I continue to report as I do to the board of education, that will be a decision that's left up to the board of education," Tata said.
Staff writer Matt Garfield contributed to this report.