Wake County schools dealing with possible fallout of replacing Keith Sutton as chairman

Posted by T. Keung Hui on December 4, 2013 

The Wake County school board has a potential PR nightmare on its hands with the African-American community after dumping Keith Sutton as chairman on Tuesday.

As noted in today’s article, it doesn’t look great that Sutton was replaced in a vote where all the white board members voted for Christine Kushner to be the new board chairwoman. It may not help the board’s case that members aren’t explaining publicly why they felt the change was needed when Sutton wanted a second one-year term.

It looks like Tuesday’s 7-2 vote in favor of Kushner took place after a lot of behind-the-scenes maneuvering by the board.

"I've talked to Mr. Sutton about leadership in the last week," Kushner said to reporters. "We did discuss things. We are moving forward. It's not about one person. It's about a board of nine coming together around the issues that we're facing."

If the board had waited a year, tradition would have had Kushner becoming chairwoman next December.

Kushner said that out of respect for Sutton, whose tenure saw the passage of an $810 million school bond issue, that she didn’t want to publicly discuss why the majority wanted to replace him.

“I made my decision based on who I felt would be the most effective leader for the issues that will come before us,” said board member Jim Martin after the meeting.

Martin declined to say why he felt Kushner would be a better leader than Sutton, saying it wasn’t a matter he wanted to discuss in the media. He compared the decision to replace Sutton with a personnel decision, which are normally confidential matters.

Martin said that members had been negotiating with Sutton to get a unanimous vote for Kushner but that the efforts fell through. If that’s the case, Sutton decided to go down swinging.

“There were no racial implications in the decision,” Martin said.

But the Rev. Earl Johnson, president of the Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association, said people in the African-American community will take note that Sutton didn’t get a vote from a single white board member. Johnson, who has been a defender of the Democratic board majority, added that he doesn’t think it was done for racial reasons,

Johnson said that Kushner will be a good board chairwoman but that the change makes the school board look dysfunctional.

“The board ought to come clean and say why he didn’t deserve a second term,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he was disappointed in the board’s decision as he praised Sutton’s tenure as chairman. Johnson said that Sutton should have been given the same opportunity that board chairs have traditionally had to serve for two years.

“His presence in the African-American community and his ability to lead made him a visible force in the community,” Johnson said of Sutton. “His presence will be missed.”

Raleigh City Councilman Eugene Weeks, who represents many of Sutton’s constituents in Southeast Raleigh, said he was disappointed that his counterpart on the school board wasn’t re-elected as chairman.

He said Sutton brought consensus to the board and helped worked through disagreements with the Wake County commissioners – ultimately leading to a successful school bond referendum.

“He’s done an outstanding job,” Weeks said. “He took it to another level. ... I thought he would be re-elected.

“It was a shocker to me.”

As for Sutton, he admits he wasn’t perfect as board chairman. But Sutton said he’s proud of what was accomplished in the past year.

“I’m proud of the accomplishments that this board has achieved,” Sutton said. “I think we’ve got a lot to be proud of. I’m proud of my time as chair.”

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