Student assignment injected into Wake school bonds fight

khui@newsobserver.comOctober 7, 2013 

— Opponents of the $810 million Wake County school construction bond issue injected the contentious issue of student assignment into the mix Monday, attempting to use it as another means to turn voters against the measure.

Proponents of the ballot measure strongly condemned the arguments, presented at a news conference Monday, as racially motivated.

Opponents of the bond issue argued that the new schools that would be funded would be used to promote busing of students for diversity instead of neighborhood schools. Former school board Chairman Ron Margiotta charged that “once the schools are built, we’ll find a far more egregious assignment plan that what we’ve ever had before.”

“We ought to demand that proponents of the bond guarantee attendance at neighborhood schools,” said Margiotta, who charged that the bonds would pay for a new high school in Garner that would “primarily” be filled with students bused in from Raleigh.

The charges drew a sharp reaction from school board Chairman Keith Sutton, who argued that the fact that assignment was being brought up the day before the election showed the “desperation” of bond opponents.

“It’s an attempt to incite racial fears and racial mistrust in the minds of voters to suggest the bonds have something to do with assignment and diversity,” he said.

In May, the Democratic-led school board reintroduced into the assignment policy the goals of limiting the percentages of low-income and low-achieving students at each school. something that the former Republican majority chaired by Margiotta had eliminated.

But Sutton, despite Margiotta’s arguments, said they had no intention of returning to the assignments of the past. Sutton pointed to new policy’s calls for providing students stability and an assignment to a school that’s reasonably close to their homes.

Sutton said defeating the bond issue would result in overcrowded schools, potentially forcing the school board to reassign more students to the schools that have space.

On Tuesday, voters will decide on a bond measure that would pay for most of a $939.9 million construction program that includes 16 new schools, six major renovation projects, smaller repairs at 79 schools, new technology and other projects.

Supporters of the bond issue have argued that the low interest rates and the county’s good credit rating make it a good time to construct the seats needed to keep up with the projected 20,000 new students coming in the next five years.

But bond opponents argued the timing and need aren’t here yet, pointing to the 10.4-percent increase in property taxes if the measure passes. Several speakers accused the school system of building “palaces” and “monuments to architecture,” such as the $75 million Rolesville High School that opened in August.

“It’s a massive effort to pass something we don’t really need,” said Russell Capps, president emeritus of the Wake County Taxpayers Association.

Supporters of the bonds have said that Rolesville High cost so much because it’s the largest school ever built by Wake and was the first use of that design with future versions expected to cost less.

Bond opponents questioned the motives of those who’ve helped contribute more than $250,000 to the Friends of Wake County, the group promoting the bonds. In a letter to the editor of the News & Observer from the heads of four of the state’s construction and design associations, the authors wrote that passage of the bonds could add 22,000 design and construction jobs to the economy.

“While my opponents would have you think it’s for the children, there’s a lot of things that point to self-interest and profit motivation for them,” said Duane Cutlip, vice president of the East Wake Republican Club.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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