New majority on Wake school board seeks 'third way'

Board members say they won't repeat mistakes that angered parents in the past.

khui@newsobserver.comDecember 5, 2011 

  • A new Wake County school board takes control Tuesday, marking the end of two tumultuous years of controversies.

    Terms on the board are staggered. Four seats came up for election in 2009, and the election of four Republicans tipped the board to the Republican side.

    The other five seats were up for election this fall. A Democratic sweep again changed the balance of the officially nonpartisan panel.

    To help readers keep score, here's a district-by-district look at the 2011-2013 Wake County school board members.

A new coalition will take control of the Wake County school board on Tuesday, with the challenge of trying to steer the state's largest school system on a course that's different from the directions taken by prior Democratic and Republican majorities.

Members of the new Democratic majority say they recognize the community's discontent with their Democratic predecessors and with the unpopular waves of student reassignments that helped put Republicans in charge in 2009.

The new members say they also have learned from complaints about the Republican majority and its steamrolling style, which helped propel Democrats this fall to an election that produced a new 5-4 majority.

Now the new majority is seeking to move the schools onto a path away from the acrimony that undermined both previous boards.

"I'm hopeful that we'll find that third way where we're strengthening our schools and not going backwards," said new school board member Christine Kushner, a Democrat.

The new majority will have to make its way past substantial obstacles including a lean budget year and an influx of thousands of new students, while settling on an acceptable way to assign students. Given the timing of the change of boards, the newly adopted student assignment plan will loom large, because families are set to make their choices for next school year in a little more than a month.

A solution for the Democrats will not be as simple as restoring the system the Republicans discarded. Board members say they recognize that any new system must balance the goals of creating diverse schools and providing stability, proximity and choice.

"For those who are fearful we are going to return to pre-2009, I'm hopeful they'll be happy that the district isn't going back to the old way," Kushner said.

Democratic school board member Keith Sutton said, "We're too far in the game plan to do away with choice. To think like that would be ridiculous." Sutton or fellow Democrat Keith Hill could become the new board chairman on Tuesday.

'Major surprises' are out

Democratic members say they're still figuring out how their third way would work.

For instance, Democrats say they intend to work with the new choice-based student assignment plan adopted by the Republican majority. But Democrats say they want to review the plan to strike a better balance between the Republican emphasis on sending students to schools closer to where they live with the Democrats' desire to avoid having schools with too many low-performing students.

Members of the new majority also want to avoid laying off teachers. But they acknowledge they're not sure how they can do that in the face of a stingy budget and the loss of $28 million in one-time federal funding that saved more than 500 jobs this year.

Democrats say they want to make sure teachers get enough planning time. But they're not talking yet about reviving the idea of dismissing students an hour early one day each week, a controversial plan called "Wacky Wednesdays" by its detractors that was eliminated by the Republicans.

The members of the new majority admit they don't have all the answers yet. They say they're not going to be like the Republicans who showed up at their first meeting in 2009 with a list of action items that weren't part of the meeting agenda.

"We're taking our time," Sutton said, "We're going to be deliberative. I'm not going to jump in Tuesday or the first week with major surprises."

Some of the Democrats' supporters hope they will return to the old ways, such as bringing back the socioeconomic diversity-based student assignment plan scrapped by the Republicans.

The new majority will also face members of the new Republican board minority and their supporters who say they'll resist efforts to return to the policies of the past.

Republicans are dialing back on some of the campaign rhetoric, which included warnings that election of a Democratic majority would result in a return to "forced busing."

Republican school board chairman Ron Margiotta, who lost his re-election bid, said, "We ended forced busing. They can't go back now."

Some observers are just hoping the new board won't bring even more major changes after the last two years of upheaval.

A report last week from the Brookings Institution gave Wake high marks for providing choice in where a student can go to school, but it said the system's method of assigning students needed to be more flexible. The Republican-controlled board added some flexibility in changes that are to take effect prior to the 2012-13 school year.

For starters

The first test of whether the new majority will live up to its campaign promises could come this week. Margiotta didn't address Hill's request for a work session on Wednesday to review the new assignment plan. The new majority could decide on Tuesday to schedule the work session for later this week.

The Rev. William Barber, president of the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he's hopeful that after the review the new board will realize that the old diversity-based plan, with some "tweaks," is still the best option. The NAACP had launched protests that resulted in arrests and filed complaints about the elimination of the diversity policy that triggered a federal civil rights investigation and a review of Wake's high school accreditation.

"Why would you scrap a nationally recognized plan for something that you can't demonstrably show is better?" Barber said.

But Kushner said the new board will look to find a "third way" that will enhance the choice-based plan without going back to the old way of assigning students.

"We can't go back to old policies that upset a large portion of the community," Kushner said.

Terry Stoops, director of education studies for the John Locke Foundation, said he expects the new majority will try over time to bring back some elements of the old diversity policy but not the whole thing. With only four Republican-held seats on the ballot in the next election in 2013, Democrats will hold the majority for the next four years.

"I don't think Rev. Barber will be happy," Stoops said. "I don't think he will be satisfied with the measured changes that will be made."

Monserrat Alvarez, a leader of N.C. HEAT, a youth group that protested the student assignment changes, said she can live with the new majority not restoring the diversity policy.

"As long as they do try to avoid high-poverty schools and don't go to neighborhood schools like the old board majority wanted to, I'll be very happy with them," Alvarez said.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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