RALEIGH — Keith Sutton is not your typical Wake County school board chairman.
Sutton, elected to lead the board Tuesday, is the first chairman in many years to be the parent of a school-age child.
Hes also one of he first in recent years to have a full-time day job.
And he comes to the job having worked in the civil rights community and in state Democratic political campaigns.
Now Sutton, 42, will apply all of his skills to lead a board charged with governing the states largest school system during one of its busiest periods in history.
Sutton acknowledges that past behavior by some board members sometimes makes it seem like the members are on a reality TV show. There have been allegations that one member had an affair with another. And public and private bickering saw one member yank a microphone out of anothers hand and police being contacted after a separate heated exchange.
While there may be some in the community who have given up on the board, there are still some who feel that we can get our act together and get the job done, Sutton said. The experiences I have, not just on the board but also my professional career, will help us moving forward.
Suttons friends and fellow Democratic board members say that he has the mix of leadership skills thats needed now.
Hes committed, said Kevin Hill, the Democratic board member who decided this week not seek another term as chairman. He looks at the issues and is willing to take a pragmatic view. He does what he thinks is right.
But while Sutton had earned the respect of many of the Republican board members over the past three years, bad blood lingers over his decision in September to join his four fellow Democrats in firing Tony Tata as superintendent.
I like Keith, but he sold his soul to fire Tata to get the chairmanship, said Ron Margiotta, the former Republican school board member who was chairman from 2009 to 2011.
But Sutton said he was promised nothing for agreeing to Tatas firing.
Politics and civil rights
Sutton, the third African-American chairman in school board history, said he knew his career path was in politics and civic rights. Hes had stints as executive director of the state NAACP and as president of the Triangle Urban League. Hes worked in the campaigns of former U.S. Rep. Eva Clayton and Gov. Bev Perdue, and he was the deputy director for the state Democratic Partys coordinated campaign in 2008.
After working on other peoples campaigns, Sutton said, he decided to jump to the other side in 2009, when he was appointed to fill the vacancy for the Southeast Raleigh school board seat caused by Rosa Gills elevation to the state House. He said it made sense because he had worked on school issues at the Urban League and had served on task forces that looked at closing the racial achievement gap and making schools academically healthy.
I know education policy, and how to be a community advocate for the minority community and the low-income community that often doesnt have a voice for themselves, he said. When you put that on a school board with eight other people, it helps.
Soon after his appointment, Republicans took the majority of the school board following the 2009 elections.
During two years of Republican control, Sutton fought efforts to drop busing for socioeconomic diversity and opposed the choice-based assignment plan that is being used this school year. He also was nearly arrested at a school board meeting in July 2010 when he went into the crowd to, he said, try to calm things down as police were arresting protesters.
It was tough knowing you were going to be on the losing side of a vote and being unable to stop it, he said.
In the past three years, Sutton has received awards from different civil rights and African-American groups, including the NAACP, Spectacular magazine and the Wake chapter of the National Congress of Black Women.
But he worked with Republicans on other issues, such as overhauling student discipline policies to reduce the number of suspensions, and starting the districts first two single-sex leadership academies.
I personally feel like I work well with Keith, even if I disagree with him on a few key issues, Republican board member John Tedesco said. I have the utmost respect for him.
After Democrats regained the majority in the 2011 elections, Sutton was elected vice chairman.
When not serving on the board or doing his day job helping crime victims at the state Department of Public Safety, Sutton juggles being a divorced father who shares custody of two daughters. He jokes that his daughters will be very civic minded considering how often theyve sat through school board meetings.
One of his proudest moments was when his youngest daughter, Makayla, ran last year for third-grade class president at Conn Elementary School in Raleigh. She wanted to be just like her dad, who was running for his first full term on the school board at the same time.
It was a reminder that our kids are watching everything we do, even when we dont think theyre watching, Sutton said.
To stay grounded, Sutton coaches Makaylas girls basketball team in a city parks league. He played basketball himself while growing up in Rocky Mount.
Eric Ferlito, the parent of a Wake student, admits hes not always happy with the way the school board behaves. But Ferlito, whose 9-year-old daughter Lauren is on Suttons team, has no problems with the coach.
When you see Keith interacting with the kids, you know he has a big heart, Ferlito said.
Sutton is the first board chairman since Susan Parry, who held the job from 2003 to 2005, to have a child enrolled in the district. Over the past seven years, other board chairmen either had no children or their kids were no longer school age.
Allison Backhouse who has been a critic of the Democratic board majority, said her respect for Sutton took a hit after the Tata vote. But she said she still considers him the best choice among the majority to lead the board.
I just hope that as a parent he better understands the concerns of parents, she said.
Though Sutton said he knows it wont be easy getting the board together, he predicts a successful year ahead. He defines success as getting a school construction bond issue passed, passing a budget that doesnt include layoffs or classroom cuts, passing a new long-range assignment plan that the public can appreciate, and hiring a world-class superintendent.
Relations also have gotten strained recently between the school board and the Republican majority on the Wake County Board of Commissioners
I believe all of us are going to jointly work together, said Joe Bryan, who was elected commissioners chairman Monday. Along the way there will be some bumps, but Im confident that Keith and I will work well together. We have to.
Sutton knows he faces some resentment from Republican board members over the way Tata was fired.
Republican board member Deborah Prickett has charged that during the closed-session discussion, Sutton told the GOP members that the Democratic members were going to kick your asses. She also says that Sutton loudly told GOP board member Debra Goldman to Shut the (expletive) up!
Goldman contacted police but says she didnt expect a report to be filed. Police did not file charges.
Prickett, who initially called Suttons behavior threatening, says shes willing to take a wait-and-see attitude as she tries to work with Sutton.
Sutton says that during the emotional discussions, he and other board members said things theyre not proud of.
There was behavior that I think none of us would be proud of over the course of those two days, he said. It is my desire to take the high road, if you would, and not expose the behaviors of anyone that was in the room that believed they were in a confidential setting.
Sutton admits that the school board is likely not the last step in his political career, but he says hes not sure where his next opportunity will lie. But at a time when some African-American leaders have bemoaned the lack of younger political leadership, Sutton said he hopes he can serve as a good example for both the younger and older generations.
Young African-American men can see me and say, I can be an elected official, and I can serve on the school board, just like they look at President Obama and see they can be president one day, he said.