Politics & Government

Diversity fight at center of Wake schools race

There's no mistaking where the school board candidates in northern and eastern Wake County stand on hot-button issues such as student reassignment, school funding and the diversity policy.

Voters in District 1 who think the Wake school system is moving in the right direction and want to preserve the diversity policy will likely choose Rita Rakestraw, who has the backing of groups who support current policies.

But those who think Wake is out of control and spends too much time on busing can choose between Chris Malone and Debbie Vair.

The decision voters will make in two weeks in District 1 could help decide whether Wake continues its nationally recognized diversity policy or moves to a system of neighborhood schools.

"This is the most important school board election in 30 years," said Rakestraw, a former teacher. "Our community is at a crossroads."

Four of the nine school board seats are on the ballot Oct. 6. Critics of current policies hope to win all four seats and gain control of the board.

In District 1, all three candidates hope to replace Lori Millberg, who has endorsed Rakestraw. They'd represent a district that includes more affluent schools in Wake Forest and Rolesville and less affluent ones in Knightdale, Wendell and Zebulon.

The diversity policy has emerged as a sharp dividing line for the candidates. At issue is Wake's practice of trying to balance the percentages of low-income students at each school, a policy that causes some students to be bused to more distant schools.

"Diversity is a fine thing," said Malone, a former Wake Forest town commissioner. "We should strive to know more about other cultures and encourage understanding. But that has to be secondary to the primary goal of education."

But for Rakestraw, keeping schools balanced is an important part of providing a high-quality education. She credits the diversity policy with keeping schools healthy, fueling economic growth and leading to Wake having a higher SAT score than the national average and a higher graduation rate than the state average.

Getting to diversity

Rakestraw warns that dropping the diversity policy will lead to resegregation and an increase in the number of high-poverty schools. She says that this would result in higher taxes to help fund those high-needs schools.

"It's a good school system, but if we get rid of economic diversity, it's going to be really harmful for the school system and the economy," she said.

But Malone and Vair say concerns about resegregation are overblown. They say that allowing children to go to schools closer to where they live will help academics by increasing parental involvement.

"Our neighborhoods are diverse," said Vair, a former school PTA president. "Diversity is something done in the '60s. Our children need to stay in their neighborhoods. If any school has the right programs and teachers, it will succeed."

Malone questions the success of the diversity policy by pointing to the recent decline in Wake's overall graduation rate and how the district's 54.6 percent graduation rate for low-income students is below the state average.

"I can't imagine why they're so proud to support a policy which is only graduating 54 percent of the group that they claim to be heroes for," Malone said.

Pointing fingers

Both Malone and Vair accuse Wake of being unresponsive to parents and wasteful of money, pointing to the higher-than-expected costs for the new Forest Ridge High School, which is scheduled to open in 2012 in northeast Raleigh.

Rakestraw admits that Wake can do a better job of communicating with parents and minimizing reassignment. She says she'll try to keep siblings together and regularly hold town hall-style meetings with the public.

When it comes to mobilizing critics, Malone and Vair acknowledge they will take away votes from each other. But neither candidate is dropping out.

Malone, who has the backing of the major opposition groups, calls Vair a "one-issue candidate" because of her long-standing opposition to construction of Forest Ridge High in her neighborhood. But Vair accuses Malone of running to further his political career, which he denies.

"I'm not a politician," Vair said. "I'm a parent. But I'm definitely going to give it my all."