We’ve got our fingers crossed again this year as Wake County elects four members of its nine-member school board. As usual, there are some excellent candidates who, if elected, will keep the school system strong. But there’s no denying that it’s a system with a cloud over it thanks to corrupt employees in the transportation division who managed to steal a lot of taxpayers’ money. The public’s trust is shaken, and that could open the door to people being elected who shouldn’t be.

And being a good school board member in Wake was no walk in the park to begin with. The success of the county’s 139 schools–success that is nationally recognized, most recently in a front-page article on Sunday in The New York Times–is based on the most delicate mix of: magnet and neighborhood schools; year-round and traditional-calendar schools; and just enough busing so that no schools are left with a high concentration of disadvantaged kids (as measured by their eligibility for free and reduced-price lunches).

Too much of any one thing, or not enough of another, and–boom! The political glue that holds the system together could dissolve in a trace.

Why? Because given the economic segregation of neighborhoods in the county, if all parents were allowed to choose their children’s schools, the system’s balance would be mortally upset.

So every year a few thousand kids (out of 120,000) are assigned to schools their parents didn’t pick, which frosts the parents and tests the determination of the school board to stand its ground against groups like Assignment By Choice (ABC) and the right wing of the local Republican party, which argue for “pure” neighborhoods schools and a break-up of the county system into two or more districts.

But standing up for diversity is the board’s job–that and badgering the perpetually tight-fisted county commissioners for money so the system can add three new schools, on average, every year, while keeping overall quality–and test scores–the best in the state.

That’s what we’re looking for in the four district races. Starting in the west and working clockwise:

In District 9 (mainly Cary), Eleanor Goettee is the best of a good group of candidates. We recommend her over the incumbent, Bill Fletcher, whom we’ve supported in past campaigns, and retired business executive Curt Stangler, who’s kept his distance from the ABC crowd, if not completely from the Republican right wing.

First, Fletcher. He’s been a standup board member for 12 years, and even though we couldn’t disagree more with his fundamentalist antipathy to sex education and lately to equal treatment in the curriculum for gays and straights, we’ve admired his willingness to fight for racial and economic balance in the schools. But Fletcher, who was the Republican nominee for state superintendent of public instruction in 2004, made a choice when he took his close election defeat to court, trying to throw out thousands of clearly marked ballots on a technicality, and when he kept fighting in the General Assembly long after it was clear that he wouldn’t prevail. In short, Fletcher wore out his welcome.

In the meantime, Stangler and Goettee entered this race and lined up substantial support. Stangler, a regular at school board meetings, comes across as more thoughtful than the usual run-government-like-a-business conservative. But he’s no match for Goettee, a former teacher who is now executive director of the N.C. Professional Teaching Standards Commission. Hers is a students-come-first philosophy, and she backs it up with solid ideas about helping new teachers get up to speed and creating more mentoring and leadership chances for veteran teachers. She’s also better, without being overbearing, on the school assignment issues.

With Fletcher out of consideration, Goettee’s election is a must in this district.

In District 7 (North Raleigh), we endorse the current board Chair Patti Head, a homemaker and volunteer whose leadership qualities have been evident throughout her first four-year term. She’s conservative, but also an articulate backer of the schools who understands the balance behind its success. If you’re looking for a Democrat to back, it’s Mike Gould, a probation officer who promises an open mind on every issue, including whether to break up the district. That’s a little too open. The third candidate is a crusty critic of the system, retired vocational education teacher Paul Kretzschmar, whose good impulses (he wouldn’t break up the district) are outweighed by his many bad ideas, including class sizes of up to 40 and double sessions.

This being North Raleigh, all three candidates are open to teaching intelligent design alongside evolution.

District 2 (Southern Wake) presents a close choice between two candidates. But Wanda Weeks Denning gets our endorsement because she’s shown more backbone on the core issue of balance and the hot-button subject of intelligent design, which she does not think belongs in the science curriculum. Denning is a community leader of long standing in both chamber of commerce (Fuquay-Varina chamber education chair) and school circles (former Wake PTA Council president). Debra McHenry is a state education official (in charge of federal funding for homeless children) with lots of experience too–she ran a charter school at one time, for instance. But in her zeal to train students for the global economy, she’s tuned out or talks around the kinds of issues–school assignments, sex ed, intelligent design–that are the basic stuff of the board. Horace Tart, an ex-teacher turned builder, is a fundamentalist Republican who wears his endorsements by Rep. Capps, ABC and the whole right-wing crowd proudly. He seems like a nice guy, but he’s definitely not what Wake needs here.

In District 1 (Eastern Wake), Lori Millberg is an ex-prosecutor who now manages her household (three kids in school) and her husband’s law firm and is a longtime PTA leader as well. She’s heads and shoulders above her two opponents, combining a friendly face and standup speaking style with the candor to say, look, this system needs more money, which could well mean higher taxes. Tillie Turlington’s got PTA experience too, but is aligned with ABC and fundamentalist Republicans like Rep. Russell Capps (of “God’s had it with Louisiana” fame). Bill Simmons, last seen running for soil and water commissioner, is a perennial candidate who’s not trying very hard this year.