Leader in merger of Wake County and Raleigh schools, Roy Tilley, dies

Roy Tilley, second from the right in this 1995 photo, was a leader in the 1976 merger of Wake County and Raleigh school districts and was the newly formed school board’s first elected chairman. Tilley died Tuesday at age 91.
Roy Tilley, second from the right in this 1995 photo, was a leader in the 1976 merger of Wake County and Raleigh school districts and was the newly formed school board’s first elected chairman. Tilley died Tuesday at age 91. Robert Miller

One of the leaders in the historic 1976 merger of the Wake County and Raleigh school districts, Roy Tilley, has died. Tilley, a former mayor of Fuquay-Varina and the first elected chairman of the newly formed Wake County School Board, died Tuesday, one day shy of his 92nd birthday.

Merging Wake County and Raleigh schools has been called one of the most important decisions in this area’s history. With the merger, Raleigh and Wake County put an inner city and a growing suburbia on the same side in the fight for quality education. As a nation dismantled the institutions of segregation, Wake County and Raleigh became a national leader in magnet schools, leading to one of the largest and at times most successful school districts in the country.

One year after the Wake County-Raleigh Schools merger, Tilley already called it “the greatest thing in the schools this decade.”

In the decades to follow, city and county leaders believe that view has withstood the test of time and point to the decision as integral in Raleigh’s economic prosperity of today.

“I was an admirer of Roy Tilley; the county was lucky to have him,” said John Gilbert, a member of the Wake County school board from 1983 to 1999 and a three-term chairman. “The issues the school board faced are the issues that face urban school districts all over the country. We were one of the very few able to avoid those issues. We weren’t perfect, but we were able to avoid the troubles of most urban school districts all over the country.”

Opposition to the merger was largely driven by race. Merging the more white and rural Wake County Schools with the better-funded, predominantly African-American Raleigh schools created one massive, integrated school district. The lines were already starting to blur, and the city school district remained fixed while the city’s limits continued to expand out into Wake County. With that growth, new schools cropped up within the city, but were part of the Wake County system.

Tilley, from then quite rural Fuquay-Varina, was largely unassuming and quiet but was a man of conviction, said former Raleigh council member Barlow Herget. County voters did not support the merger, voting it down in a 1972 referendum, but Tilley did.

“He stood up,” said Herget, who attended the school board meeting where the city and county school boards voted to merge. “He knew what was at stake. I don’t think he realized he had it in himself. It really gave him strength in his character that he didn’t know he had.”

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Wake began building a magnet program that survives today, lessening geography’s role in students’ destinies and seeking racial and socioeconomic balance in classrooms. Even once Tilley left the school board, Gilbert said he continued to support Wake’s move away from traditional neighborhood schools to racially balanced ones.

“What people need to understand is if you have a high percentage of children in a school eligible for free and reduced lunch, that school is not going to work very well,” Gilbert said. “The thing we know is that the most important thing affecting student performance and achievement is the socioeconomic makeup of the school and the classroom.... Roy Tilley understood that. It was support of people like Roy that helped us in the ’80s and ’90s achieve what we did.”

Unlike some city school districts, Herget said some of Raleigh’s best schools are in its inner city, pointing to Enloe High School and Wiley Elementary’s history as magnets.

“It didn’t make any difference where you lived, you could go to a good school,” Herget said. “Our school system became such a crown jewel for the city in recruiting economic development.”

Former Raleigh Mayor Smedes York led the city in the years after the merger and believes the school system built then survives today as one of the best in the country.

“We now have, in my opinion, one of the top school systems in the United States,” York said. “There’s 160,000 students, diversity through the whole system. As I get older, I see (the merger) as the most important thing in our history.”

Tilley left the school board in 1979 and was elected mayor of Fuquay-Varina in 1987.

He is survived by his wife of 75 years, Geraldine Tilley, and their three children, seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are with Thomas Funeral Home in Fuquay-Varina, with visitation Sunday, Feb. 18, from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. and the funeral to follow at the Fuquay-Varina Presbyterian Church.

Drew Jackson; 919-829-4707; @jdrewjackson