Eastern Wake County wants a school board voice

aspecht@newsobserver.comNovember 12, 2012 

When it comes to school questions, Eastern Wake County had its hand up for a long time. Now someone from the area may be called upon to answer.

School board member Chris Malone, whose District 1 includes Wake Forest and much of Eastern Wake, will be stepping down after being elected to the state House last week. The school board will name his replacement. Eastern Wake leaders think it’s more than time for a board member from the area that includes Knightdale, Wendell, Zebulon and other communities.

Since the 1993 school board election, Eastern Wake has had a representative on the board for only four years, Lori Millberg of Wendell from 2005 to 2009.

Advocates for Eastern Wake say the area hasn’t gotten the magnet schools, elective classes, or assistance that has gone to other areas with similarly high percentages of low-income students.

“These challenges have been here for a long time,” said Joe Bryan, who represents Eastern Wake on the Wake County Board of Commissioners. “I’d hope they could help address those through this appointment.”

Many of the schools in Eastern Wake have among the county’s highest percentages of students on the school system’s free-and-reduced-lunch program. In school year 2011-2012, every elementary school in Knightdale had at least 50 percent of its student population on the program. The county average is about 35 percent.

“The school board has polarized our schools and created a system of have and have-nots,” said Shannon Hardy, leader of Knightdale 100, a local advocacy group. “With Wake being so competitive, it just so happens this region is full of have-nots.”

In addition, SAT scores at Eastern Wake high schools have traditionally lagged below the county average.

School board members say the choice of Malone’s successor will involve more than geography.

“I want somebody on the board who understands Eastern Wake County, but I also want somebody who has a countywide perspective,” said board member Jim Martin. “I want people who are willing to roll up their sleeves to do the hard work. I don’t want to see someone who is looking for a way in for a future political career.”

In addition to Malone, current members John Tedesco and Debra Goldman sought state offices in last week’s elections, unsuccessfully in both cases. The Republican minority on the board now has four members, but could dwindle to three because the selection of a new member will be made by the entire board.

The new board member would finish out Malone’s term, which runs through November 2013. School board member Susan Evans said she’d prefer to appoint a person who planned to run next year for a full four-year term.

“What I’m looking at are the credentials,” Evans said. “I want to choose a person who I think, if they run again, will be a good school board member for four years.”

A common theme from board members is that while it might be good to have a board member from Eastern Wake, that won’t be their top priority when picking Malone’s replacement.

“It’s going to be an important decision,” said board member Christine Kushner. “We’re going to need to find the right person for Wake County, not just for that district.”

Some who have sough more resources to Eastern Wake disapproved of the board’s firing of Superintendent Tony Tata in September. During Tata’s tenure, several area schools received new programs such as Junior ROTC, an initiative using educational material from LEGO and a program focused on science, technology, engineering and math. Malone takes credit for helping obtain these programs.

Despite the new offerings, Eastern Wake County also has a higher percentage of students applying to magnet schools than any of the other seven Wake schools regions, according to school year 2011-2012 data.

The data came just weeks after parents failed to sway the school board to start a magnet school program at Hodge Road Elementary, a school with the region’s highest percentage of low-income students. The school board instead granted magnet school programs to three schools in North Raleigh.

In response, Eastern Wake parents criticized the board at its meetings and in the media, saying district leaders aren’t providing enough support.

“The present magnet plan is one of the root causes of the problems in East Wake County,” Curt Olsen, president of the Knightdale High PTSA, said in September. “No wonder East Wake County schools have such a high percentage (in the free-and-reduced lunch program.)”

Some local advocates saw Malone as part of the problem. Malone supported a choice plan that provided families the opportunities “to get good kids out of failing schools,” as he put it in a robocall during his campaign for N.C. House.

Despite the opening, the area’s most outspoken advocates lack the interest or ability to serve. Millberg, who previously held Malone’s seat and was his opponent for the state House seat, isn’t interested.

The redistricting plan approved by the school board last year split Knightdale into three districts, putting Hardy and other Knightdale 100 leaders outside of Malone’s district.

“Otherwise I would,” Hardy said. “I think we need someone who is a consensus builder, not an ideologue.”

Toshiba Rice, who runs Track My Steps, a tutoring organization, says she’s considering applying.

“But I have four kids and a business to run, so I don’t know. We’ll see,” Rice said.

Knightdale Mayor Russell Killen suggested ex-Wendell Mayor Harold Broadwell as a good fit. But Broadwell, president of the East Wake Education Foundation, says he’s not interested, either.

Killen hopes whoever steps-up “really understands our issues ... because I do think there’s a lot of room for improvement in the next board member.”

Zebulon Mayor Bob Matheny doesn’t care if the next board member is from Eastern Wake, “I care more about (finding) somebody that’s gonna do the job.

“I’m not a fan of Chris Malone because he never did anything. He came here once then never answered my emails,” Matheny said.

Malone says their criticisms of him are unfounded: “The school board, myself included, has gone down that road (in helping Eastern Wake) farther than anyone prior to us.”

“But, I would not say the job is complete.”

Specht: 919-829-4826

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