Departing Wake County school board member Susan Evans says she helped return the focus back on student learning and made the school system a beacon in public education again during her five years in office.
Evans, who decided not to run for a new term on the board to unsuccessfully seek a seat in the state Senate, received a plaque and a standing ovation from the audience at the Nov. 15 school board meeting. Evans also gave an emotional eight-minute speech at the meeting as she reflected on her time on the board since 2011.
“I am thankful to the community to having the opportunity to serve in this role and I leave with the sanctification that Wake County Public Schools is once again a beacon in public education,” Evans said at the conclusion of her speech on Nov. 15.
Evans was elected in October 2011, defeating school board Chairman Ron Margiotta for the District 8 seat that represents southwestern Wake. Evans was part of a five-person election sweep that year that flipped the school board from being led by a Republican majority to a Democratic majority.
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Evans had been critical of the Republican board majority’s elimination of socioeconomic diversity as a factor in student assignment, ending the busing of several low-income neighborhoods for diversity purposes and the adoption of a choice-based assignment plan to replace assignment by address.
The two years of GOP school board control saw NAACP-organized protests and arrests at school board meetings, national media attention, jokes by comedian Stephen Colbert, civil rights investigations and a threats to Wake County’s high school accreditation.
After taking office, Evans helped eliminate the choice plan to return to the use of base assignments. She also voted to restore socioeconomic diversity as a factor in the assignment policy.
But citing issues such as competition from charter schools and private schools, the school board has not attempted to use student assignment to stem the rising number of high-poverty schools. Instead, Wake has stressed providing stability in school assignments while using efforts such as more magnet schools to try to voluntarily diversify schools.
Evans was also part of the majority that fired Superintendent Tony Tata and replaced him with Jim Merrill, who last week was named 2017 N.C. Superintendent of the Year.
Evans touched on these things during her ‘reflections” on her board tenure.
“When Dr. (Jim) Martin and Ms. (Christine) Kushner and I joined this board in 2011, and joined some other colleagues that were already here, it was during a time of significant turmoil for this school district that had begun a couple of years prior and our national reputation had been tarnished,” Evans said.
“At times during that first year, I literally felt that I had jumped head first into the lion’s den, but our group never faltered. We faced the significant challenges that we had head on.
“We took a thoughtful and steady approach to some key decisions that we had to make right away, a couple of which were initially unpopular with large portions of our community. But I am proud that my colleagues and I so moved forward with what we felt like was in the best interests of this school district and this community for the long run and I never lost one minute of sleep over whether those were the right decisions.”
Evans proceeded to say how appreciative she was that Merrill “came back when we needed him the most” in 2013 after several years of instability at superintendent. Evans said that Merrill had guided Wake back to a focus on continuous improvement around student outcomes.
Evans then pointed to the creation of a “visionary strategic plan” that she said she is confident will yield huge benefits. The plan calls for raising the graduation rate to 95 percent by 2020. The plan also calls for producing graduates ready for productive citizenship as well as higher education or a career.
Evans then highlighted some of the accomplishments she said she was proud to have been part of as a board member:
▪ Expanded the number of magnet and application schools by more than a dozen to provide “significantly expanded choice” for families;
▪ Expanded the number of traditional-calendar schools in areas overrepresented by year-round schools in years past;
▪ Provided the ability for more families to have a calendar that works best for them;
▪ Worked with the Wake County Board of Commissioners to adopt the 2013 building program and the new seven-year capital improvement program;
▪ Worked to improve stability around student assignment by offering stay-where-you-start opportunities that did not exist before;
▪ Developed a “thorough and transparent” process for student assignment with expanded options for community engagement and notice of potential assignments months in advance;
▪ Worked with county leaders to secure large increases in funding for program expansions and pay raises for all school employees;
▪ Worked to provide local due-process rights for teachers after General Assembly eliminated awarding career status;
▪ Worked on changes in the student discipline policy leading to fewer long-term suspensions and provided those students with alternative learning options.
“Most importantly, this board has returned the focus to student learning and achievement and away from political ideologies that had once hijacked our school system,” Evans said.