For the past four years, the debate among Wake County school board members has often grown heated, with decisions made along partisan lines on key issues such as student assignment and the hiring and firing of superintendents.
But Tuesday’s election results mean the board will no longer have a minority faction. Instead, the nominally nonpartisan board will consist of seven registered Democrats, an unaffiliated member who was a Democrat, and a registered Republican who was appointed earlier this year with only Democrats in support.
Members of this new board, to be sworn in during early December, and their supporters say the new lineup will end partisan fighting and allow the leaders of the state’s largest school system to return their focus to academic achievement.
“We’re going to be focused on academic achievement, strengthening our school system and supporting our teachers, principals and administrators by having effective policies,” said Christine Kushner, the board vice chairwoman and a Democrat. “We’re not focused on politics or partisan gain.”
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But critics say they worry that the lack of a minority faction on the board could lead to members’ ignoring dissenting opinions in the community.
“In the county, there are strong differences on the biggest issues,” said John Tedesco, a board member and Republican who didn’t run for re-election this year. “I hope they’re respectful of those different perspectives.”
Before the 2009 elections, there was much less talk about the political affiliations of board members. With the exception of former GOP board member Ron Margiotta, Republicans joined Democrats in supporting busing students for socioeconomic diversity and converting some schools to a mandatory year-round calendar.
Frustration over the unpopular year-round conversions and record student reassignments, which board members blamed on growth, helped fuel the perception that the board wasn’t listening to parents. Responding to this discontent, Tedesco and three other conservative Republicans won election in 2009 and joined Margiotta in forming a new 5-4 majority.
Amid dissent that sparked arrests and national media coverage, the Republican majority made changes such as dropping busing for diversity from the assignment policy and passing a choice-based assignment plan.
In 2011, Democrats gained a 5-4 majority and proceeded with changes such as dropping the choice plan and restoring a role for diversity to the assignment policy. The board also fired Superintendent Tony Tata along partisan lines and replaced him with Jim Merrill in a vote largely along partisan lines.
On Tuesday, Democrats Tom Benton, Zora Felton and Monika Johnson-Hostler all were elected. The fourth seat was won by Bill Fletcher, a Republican who backed restoring diversity to the assignment policy and who defeated the GOP-endorsed candidate.
Fletcher, a board member from 1993 to 2005, and Benton both were appointed earlier this year to replace Republicans, elected in 2009, who resigned.
The election puts in place nine members who all say they support using student assignment as one way to promote diverse school enrollments.
The elections took place the same night that voters approved an $810 million school construction bond issue.
“We had a win-win on the election Tuesday,” said Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition. “We had the county speak clearly that it wants to keep our schools high quality. We want a school board that’s focused on achievement. It’s a very proud moment for Wake County.”
Great Schools typically opposed the Republican majority and has been supportive of the Democratic majority. The largest individual donor in the last two school board elections was Ann Campbell, a leader in Great Schools, who gave at least $31,000 to Democrats and $1,000 to Fletcher, according to campaign finance reports.
Brannon said Great Schools isn’t responsible for donations made by individual members.
School board Chairman Keith Sutton said it would be wrong to assume that all nine board members will agree on everything.
“You still have a board of nine individuals,” said Sutton, a Democrat. “Everyone still has their own ideas of what they truly want.”
However, Sutton said, it should be easier reaching compromises moving forward.
‘A rude awakening’ feared
But some worry about a return to a pre-2009 board that could mean more mandatory year-round school conversions and large-scale reassignments – something that hasn’t happened in the past four years.
“People are going to be in for a rude awakening when they experience things from this point on,” said Allison Backhouse, who was campaign manager for Margiotta during his failed 2011 re-election bid.
But Sutton said it’s unfair to compare the new board with the pre-2009 board.
For instance, Sutton said, the board realizes that mandatory year-round assignment “doesn’t work.”
He said members won’t rely just on reassignments and magnet schools for promoting diversity, but also will use a variety of new academic programs.
“We’ve got some things to make schools more attractive other than just magnets,” he said.
Tedesco said that if the new board becomes complacent, there will a reckoning.
“If this board oversteps in a manner that is completely disregarding a large portion of the community who doesn’t believe it’s OK to bus a student an hour and a half each way to fill a quota, they will again incite great interest in the public to make a change,” he said.
With the bond issue, the board election, the hiring of a new superintendent and the revision of the assignment policy behind the panel, Sutton said he wants to turn the board’s attention to issues such as increasing the graduation rate, reducing the number of suspensions, and improving conditions in Knightdale’s schools.
“We want to focus on student outcomes and student achievement, which is what we’re eager to work on and deal with,” Sutton said.