From the Editor

Drescher: Partisan politics and the school board

September 28, 2012 

WSFUTURE.NE.092612.CCS

Wake Co. School Board Chairman Kevin Hill, left, and Vice-Chairman Keith Sutton talk about the firing of former Superintendent Tony Tata during a news conference held at the School Board headquarters in Cary, NC on Sept. 26, 2012.

CHRIS SEWARD — cseward@newsobserver.com

Kevin Hill, chairman of the Wake school board, came to The News & Observer a few months ago and chided us for describing the board in partisan terms.

He noted that articles often include the party affiliation of the board member and refer to the “Democratic majority” or “Republican minority.” School board candidates aren’t identified by party on the ballot, he pointed out. The board was not intended to be partisan, he said, and should not be.

This was the first point Hill made in the meeting. He made it emphatically. “I truly feel we have got to get the politics out of the school board,” Hill said.

For a second there, Hill, an earnest former principal, had me thinking he might be right. Gosh, maybe all those 5-4 votes had nothing to do with party affiliation. Maybe we were seeing partisanship that didn’t exist.

Voting by party

Since then, Hill and his colleagues have done everything possible to prove they are partisan, culminating with a party-line 5-4 vote this week to fire Superintendent Tony Tata after less than 20 months on the job.

By the way, in that June 29 interview with The N&O, Hill said: “I like Tony. He’s a professional.” Hill said during his campaign last fall that Tata was doing a good job and he expected him to be superintendent for years.

Tata, a Republican, was hired by the previous board, which had a 5-4 Republican majority. In November, Hill and Democrats won control of the board. The Democrats have struggled to articulate why they fired Tata.

In our news coverage, we often describe the board in partisan terms because party affiliation is relevant to almost every significant decision the board makes. The parties support candidates during elections. Once on the board, members tend to vote with their bloc. Three Republican members are running for higher (and partisan) office.

To not mention party affiliation would be to ignore what is fact – that the board, although created to be nonpartisan, is divided by party and operates in a partisan manner.

One can argue that there’s nothing wrong with having a partisan school board. After all, if the U.S. Congress, the highest elected body in the land, is partisan and operates with majority and minority parties, why shouldn’t a local school board be partisan?

OK, maybe that proves the point the school board should not be partisan, as Hill and other members profess. But they seem incapable of finding common ground.

The effect on families

Their division has implications for Wake families. Parents want stability in school assignment. They don’t want to be jerked around every two years with a new plan. Hill recognized this in June. “The kids and the community do not deserve the yo-yo” of school assignments constantly changing, he said.

Tata’s firing means Wake schools will have three superintendents in three years.

No doubt, Tata made some mistakes. But he was the person who did the most these last few years to unify the Wake schools community. In his first year, Tata visited nearly every school and scores of community groups. He listened hard. He was pragmatic and constructive. He calmed a system in turmoil and brought hope that this community could reach consensus. He provided a powerful example of effective public leadership.

As chairman, Hill had a chance to lead the board toward nonpartisanship. He chose otherwise.

There’s a reason we describe the Wake school board as partisan. Because it is.

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or jdrescher@newsobserver.com. On Twitter @john_drescher

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