CARY — Wake Countys newest school board member will take office as controversy heats up over student assignment, the search for a new superintendent and the development of a school-construction bond referendum for this fall.
On Tuesday, the school board chose Tom Benton, a retired principal who spent most of his 32-year education career in Wake. Benton won four of seven votes, with the rest split among three other candidates.
Benton, a Democrat, replaces Chris Malone, a Republican, who resigned in December after being elected to a seat in the state House.
Also on Tuesday, the school board voted 5-2 along party lines with Democrats agreeing to let interim Superintendent Stephen Gainey hire a lobbyist to oppose legislative changes backed by the Republican majority on the Wake County Board of Commissioners.
Commissioners want to change state law to take over from the school board the jobs of locating, constructing and owning schools. They also want authority to give money to help charter schools build facilities and to require that four of the nine school board seats be elected at large.
Benton, 62, of Zebulon, joins as two board committees are scheduled to review on Thursday changes to the assignment policy that would restore diversity as an official goal. Its the prelude toward developing a comprehensive long-range assignment plan that would begin in the 2014-15 school year with a goal of balancing schools by student achievement.
During interviews the board members conducted with the applicants Tuesday, Benton called assignment a powerful tool to make sure students are in situations where they can be expected to be high-performing. But he also said they need to do a better job of explaining assignment to families to reduce the frustration of children being moved to different schools.
Some of the bad feelings about student assignment will go away if we can convince parents wherever they live and go to school their children will get a high quality education, Benton said.
Benton will now help fill one more vacancy, the slot that was created Friday after Debra Goldman, a Republican, resigned to become executive director of the Dorie Cheek Reece Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Wilkes County that promotes stroke awareness and prevention. Board members hope to fill that vacancy in March.
But for now, Bentons appointment gives Democrats on the officially nonpartisan board six of the nine seats. This gives Democrats a supermajority allowing it to waive policies as it deals with a wide range of issues in the states largest school district.
Control on the board has shifted back and forth since 2009 when Goldman and Malone formed part of a new Republican majority whose actions included dropping diversity from the assignment policy. Democrats regained the control after the 2011 election and, barring any state legislative changes to the way Wake elects board members, will be in the majority through 2015.
Benton will now hold the seat through the end of Malones term, which expires in November. But Benton has said he intends to run in October when the seat is on the ballot for a four-year term. The District 1 seat covers Wake Forest, Rolesville, Wendell, Zebulon, part of Knightdale and part of North Raleigh.
Benton started his career in the area as a teacher at Enloe High School in Raleigh in 1973. He later was a principal at Zebulon High School when it was converted to a middle school. He retired as principal of Durant Road Middle School in Raleigh in 2005.