Midtown Raleigh News

African-American leaders question Wake school board leadership change

African-American community leaders are demanding an explanation for why Keith Sutton was replaced as chairman of the Wake County school board, but school board members continue to give few reasons for the change.

Several African-American community groups and elected officials have come to Sutton’s defense since he was replaced as board chairman last week, saying the community deserves to know why the change was made. But school board members who supported the move insist it was an internal decision that doesn’t require public explanation.

“It’s a board issue,” school board member Kevin Hill said Tuesday. “For the last six years I’ve been on the board, board members have been responsible for electing the leadership. This is the first time an outside group or individuals has tried to influence the selection.”

Board member Jim Martin, who like Hill backed replacing Sutton with Christine Kushner, has compared the vote to a personnel decision that would normally be treated as a confidential matter.

Tuesday marked the first public meeting of the board since the change in leadership. Sutton was the only member not at Tuesday’s policy committee meeting.

Sutton had sought a second one-year term as chairman after completing a year in which the district had hired a new superintendent and helped persuade the public to pass an $810 million school construction bond issue. But in the ensuing 7-2 vote, Sutton didn’t get support from any of the board’s white members.

Since the Dec. 3 vote, a number of African-American leaders have voiced their complaints about the vote.

“Keith was a good symbol for the African-American community and brought about an increased hope,” said Wake County Commissioner James West, whose seat represents many of Sutton’s Southeast Raleigh constituents. “I think somebody owes the community an explanation.”

More harsh reaction

The words have been even harsher from some voices who are especially upset because they had helped elect the Democratic board majority members who had gone against Sutton.

“Members of the African-American community sat in shock and silence, not believing that the Democratic school board they had once worked so hard to elect in 2011, had just stabbed one of their best, brightest, and arguably most effective young leaders in the back right in front of them,” wrote Cash Michaels, editor of The Carolinian, in the latest issue of the African-American newspaper.

The Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association, which has represented the local African-American community since 1932, called it “disturbing” that the vote went along racial lines. The group warned there could be political consequences for the decision.

“You have sought our endorsements and seek our assistance with your campaign canvassing and fundraising efforts,” said the Rev. Earl Johnson, president of the RWCA, in a written statement. “The upcoming elections of 2016 may seem far off, but our memories are even longer.”

One exception to the criticism has been the Coalition of Concerned Citizens for African-American Children, which said it welcomed the new board leadership. The group has feuded in the past with Sutton.

School board member Susan Evans said critics are making too much of the change.

“It’s unfortunate that there has been such an over-reaction to the decision,” she said.

Publicly, board members have praised Sutton’s tenure as chairman. Kushner said she didn’t want to disrespect him by saying why a leadership change was needed.

West responded to reports that Sutton had tended to take too independent a path and didn’t work closely enough with other board members.

“I’m just of the opinion that a statement like that is more of an excuse than anything else,” West said. “Keith consulted, from my perspective, with his board members.”

New school board member Monika Johnson-Hostler, who had voted for Sutton, said she was approached a month ago by Kushner asking for her vote.

“I didn’t feel that a reason was shown for why a change was needed,” she said.

West said the explanation from the school board for the change is too thin.

“Trust is the glue that holds everything together,” he said. “This does not foster teamwork. It fosters division, from my point of view.”

Staff writer Thomas Goldsmith contributed to this report.