NC: Wake school diversity advocates see no message in GOP commissioners sweep
Before Tuesday’s election, at least one Democrat running for the Wake County Board of Commissioners said the vote would be a referendum on the Wake County Board of Education and its move toward community-based schools.
But days after four Republicans — all supporters of the school board’s policy — swept to victory in the four county commissioner races, Democrats and supporters of school diversity policies said the vote was more about the national economy than school issues.
Kevin Hill, a school board member who voted against community-based schools, said, “I don’t know that it’s a mandate to proceed with community schools. I think it was people coming out to vote their dissatisfaction with how things are going in this country.”
That’s not how school board members who back community-based schools see it.
School Board chairman Ron Margiotta noted that Democratic commissioner candidate Jack Nichols had called the county commissioners election a referendum on the school board.
“Jack Nichols said over and over that this would be a referendum on the school board. And so it appears that the referendum on the school board is that public is in favor what the school board has been doing,” Margiotta said.
Chris Malone, who was part of the 5-4 majority that voted for community-based schools, echoed Margiotta to The News & Observer, saying that the commissioners’ results were a vote of confidence in the school board.
“The people are saying, ‘Leave the school board alone; let them do what they were elected to do on student assignment,’” Malone told the newspaper. “People want the school board to succeed and do their business.” Efforts to reach Malone Thursday were unsuccessful.
The board of commissioners approves part of the school system’s budget and all school construction. The school system, already the largest in the state with more than 143,000 students, anticipates growing by 60,000 students by the end of the decade and needing some 33 new schools to accommodate the growth. The bill could be $1 billion or more.
Nichols, a former county commissioner seeking a return to the board, had stressed the schools issue. He received the backing of three former Wake school superintendents at a press conference outside the Murphey School, the site where Raleigh began to integrate its schools.
Nichols could not be reached Thursday, but Perry Woods — a campaign adviser to Nichols — and a second Democratic commission candidate, Steve Rao, disagreed with Malone’s reading of the election. He said the GOP candidates won by narrow margins and the real referendums lie ahead — a likely school bond vote and the vote for five school board seats in October 2011.
“The real mandate of the election was people are concerned about the economy,” Woods said. “It’s ridiculous for them to claim a mandate. The results show we’re pretty much a 50-50 county and there is no way in the world they are going to pass a school bond.”
Karen Rindge, executive director of WakeUP Wake County, a community group that pushes for controlled development and quality schools, said the vote that matters will come in next October’s school board vote. Of the five board members who will be up for election, only one, Margiotta, voted for community-based schools.
“I don’t think the voters went to the polls and voted the way they did because of what was going on with the school board,” Rindge said. “But I think we’re going to see a change next year. That’s when we’re really going to see if the public agrees with this board of education.”
Margiotta said the public sentiment was clear on Tuesday. He said the vote was more than a general GOP tide because Democrats were elected in Wake County at the legislative level. The commission vote was a vote of support for the school board, he said.
“The general public is opposed to using any quota system for assigning students. I think we’re beyond that in this country,” he said. “The people have spoken in the last election and they spoke again in this one.”
Patty Williams, program director of Great Schools in Wake Coalition and a critic of the school board’s move to community schools, said the school board was an issue in the county commissioners races, but voters may not have been aware of it.
“One one hand, it was a referendum on the schools. On the other hand, I don’t know how much voter education necessarily worked,” she said.
Williams said the test for the popularity of the school board’s actions will come when the schools seek a bond issue to support growth.
“That’s where the rubber will meet the road,” Williams said. She expects that voters will reject a bond unless the board responds positively to concerns that community-based schools will lead to re-segregation in areas with high minority populations.
The dynamics of the school board changed Oct. 5 when Debra Goldman, a member of the 5-4 majority, broke ranks and proposed a successful resolution that temporarily halted development of plan for community-based schools.
Hill said he and other members of the minority will work with Goldman to develop an assignment plan that won’t allow for high poverty, low performing schools. But he said the political struggle will go on as the next election nears.
Hill expects Margiotta will face a tough challenge for re-election as the board minority seeks to take the upper hand by holding their four seats and taking Margiotta’s.
“I don’t think [Margiotta] is going to run unopposed,” Hill said. “The days of any board member running unopposed are over. [The majority members] left the barn door open for politics to come come in.”
(Images: Matt Mahurin; Flickr Creative Commons/jetheriot; From “HANDS: A Pictorial Archive from Nineteenth-Century Sources” by Jim Harter)