Victories by Lori Millberg (District 1) and Eleanor Goettee (District 9) in the Wake County Board of Education runoffs last Tuesday cemented the school board’s pro-diversity policy in place, probably for at least four more years. That fact, no doubt, helped cue the decision of Superintendent Bill McNeal, the 2004 National Superintendent of the Year, to retire after five years in the job and 31 years in the county system. McNeal, whose decision was announced yesterday, reportedly plans to take a position with the North Carolina Association of School Administrators.
The long-standing policy that no school in the county system should have a disproportionate share of students who are eligible for free and reduced lunches–whose parents are poor, in other words–has been under fire for a decade by conservative Wake Republicans, who dismiss it as “busing.” But the conservatives’ favored candidates, Tillie Turlington (District 1) and Curt Stangler (District 9), each ran a distant second in the initial round of voting Oct. 11, and while Turlington made up some ground on Millberg in the Nov. 8 runoffs, both lost again by solid margins in a pair of districts the right-wing critics would need to take control of the board.
In short, if the conservatives were going to take over the school board, this was the year, with three supposedly winnable seats available (in addition to the two they already control) on the nine-member board. But instead of winning all three, they won just one–the District 2 seat in South Wake taken by Horace Tart in October.
The outcome was a victory for the Wake Democratic Party, which backed Millberg and Goettee with mailings, phone calls and door-to-door canvassers, according to party chair Keith Karlsson.
More than that, it was a stunning loss for conservative Republican leaders like state Reps. Russell Capps and Nelson Dollar, who backed Turlington and Stangler. It also displayed the weakness of Assignment By Choice (ABC), the Cary-based group that advocates “neighborhood schools” instead of diversity, and Called2Action, the new evangelical Christian organization. ABC’s thin ranks have failed to grow in the four-plus years they’ve been at it. Called2Action’s political efforts–via a political action committee, Called2Elect–also fell flat, with chairman Steve Noble bemoaning its failure to organize congregation-based “Christian Impact Committees” in time for ’05. “If we had 30 CICs up and running, we could have won both school board seats today,” Noble said in an e-mail to his group when the results were in.
Looking ahead to 2007, three of the five seats that will be contested–the ones held now by Susan Parry, Beverly Clark and Rosa Gill–are in strongly progressive districts. Those three, combined with the Millberg-Goettee victories and that of current board chair Patti Head, who is conservative but pro-diversity, mean the conservatives will be on the defensive two years from now. They won’t be able to gain control of the nine-member board, and they’ll be fighting to hold on in the two districts (Ron Margiotta’s in southwest Wake and Carol Parker’s in North Raleigh) they grabbed in the ’03 elections.
The results also don’t auger well for the four Republicans elected to the Wake County Board of Commissioners three years ago. Board Chair Joe Bryan, Herb Council, Tony Gurley and Phil Jeffreys are most of the board’s current 5-2 GOP majority. But all four must stand for election in 2006, and between now and then they face the thorny issue of how big the ’06 school construction bond issue should be. If it’s big enough to meet the county’s huge backlog of construction needs, it will force a tax hike and right-wing Republicans are likely to rebel. But if it’s not big enough, the progressives who helped Millberg and Goettee win will have the issue they need to light a fire under Democratic voters and perhaps sweep out the GOP.