Keeping an eye on Wake schools

The Wake County Board of Education meets Tuesday, Dec. 15. A committee of the whole session starts at 1 p.m. A regular meeting follows at 3 p.m at 3600 Wake Forest Road, Raleigh. Info:

Three days after their tumultuous debut on the Wake County Board of Educationand too late to save them from an embarrassing and controversial private meetingthe four newly elected members were briefed by the board’s attorney on local meeting protocols and requirements of the state’s Open Public Meetings Law.

It was an ironic twist in the saga of their school board takeover. No sooner had they been sworn into office than Debra Goldman, Chris Malone, Deborah Prickett and John Tedesco joined holdover member Ron Margiotta in a conservative bloc that stampeded the board’s remaining four members.

By successive 5-4 votes:

  • They ousted Kevin Hill as board chair midterm and replaced him with Margiotta;
  • They took up a series of major policy issues with no advance notice to anyone else;
  • They hired their own legal counsel (in addition to veteran board attorney Ann Majestic), a top Republican election-law expert, Tom Farr;
  • They set out to junk the county’s decades-long policy of balanced school populations (shorthand: diversity) in favor of their “neighborhood schools” approach, a change they may attempt to complete in a matter of weeks.

That the fivea board majoritymet privately to plot their moves would have violated public meetings law, Majestic told them, except that they hadn’t been sworn in to office at the time.

In addition, springing agenda items on the other four board members without notifying them or the public, Majestic added, ran afoul of established protocol and of a board policy that directs the superintendent, Del Burns, to gather “relevant information” on policy questions “to assist the board in reaching sound and objective decisions.”

No law was broken, the soft-spoken Majestic said. “I just don’t think that’s been the practice. That’s why it drew a lot of attention.”

A lot of attention and a ton of criticism. Two dozen parents and teachers denounced the new majority’s tactics during the public portion of the meeting, many saying the new members had breached their campaign promise to listen to the publicwhich they had accused the old board majority of refusing to doas well as their post-election statements that major changes would be made gradually and carefully.

Tedesco, in particular, had said the board should initiate a “community-wide visioning process” before instituting major policy changes, “making sure that everybody’s voice is at the table.”

Instead, said Anne Sherron, a Wake PTA Council member, “all I could think of” [as she watched them] “was a bull in a china shop.”

Early in last week’s meeting, the majority voted 5-4 to advance a sweeping change to student assignment policies, one that would remove all references to diversity and call for assignments “based on proximity to residence.” The vote rejected member Keith Sutton’s motion to refer the change to the board’s policy committee for discussion.

With Goldman signaling that she was uncomfortable with the proceedings, Tedesco called for a recess. When the meeting resumed a few minutes later, the majority reversed itself and joined in a unanimous vote to put the question to the policy committee.

As the meeting ended, Tedesco threw up his hands and, reminded of his prior statement, claimed to be holding back his impatient allies. However, he did not mention a community-wide visioning process.

Goldman said she had intended to get the student assignment issue and other items “on the table,” not to ram through any changes.

Prickett was unrepentant. Asked on Friday if she thought the majority had gone far too fast, Prickett said nothing the new members did should surprise anyone who followed their campaigns.

Had the student assignment policy come to a vote without any committee consideration, Prickett said, “it was only a first reading” and would’ve required a second vote for final adoption. And even at that, she added, it was merely “setting a framework” for assignments, not making them.

Jonica Rowland disagreed. A Raleigh mother of two kids in the Wake County school system, Rowland was one of 10 parents who showed up Friday vowing to monitor the school board closely. “Anyone can make a mistake, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt,” Rowland said. “My big concern is, I don’t think the golden rule was practiced [at the meeting] … I do have a problem with hasty decisions and private meetings.”

Before they adjourned last week, the new majority scheduled a second meeting this month. It’s unclear whether they’ll try to take up the student assignment issue again. As chair, Margiotta can make that happen, and he’s been clear that he wants to move quickly.

His hard-running start, though, has stirred up what former school board member Carol Parker called “the sleeping giant”the vast numbers of parents and others who support the school system and diversity but who didn’t vote in this fall’s elections. Just 11 percent of Wake’s registered voters came to the polls in October, and many of them couldn’t vote in the school board elections, since five of the nine districts, including most of Raleigh, were not on the ballot.

A coalition of diversity backers has formed in recent weeks. One of the organizers, former county commissioner Yevonne Brannon, hopes the group can persuade the new school board to “slow down and listen before any drastic decisions are made.”

Brannon, who heads the WakeUP Wake County board of directors, says the new board wants parental “choice” on school assignments but may not understand the extent of the choicesincluding magnet schools, year-round schools and traditional-calendar schoolsavailable to them now.

A “neighborhood schools” approach, if done wrong, could destroy the magnet system and leave parents with fewer, not more choices, she warns. It could also result in resegregated “high-poverty” schools in low-income neighborhoods.

The new board members have denied that their policies would lead to resegregation. But they’ve made conflicting statements about the magnet systema tool for desegregating schools. While they say they don’t plan any changes to that system, they also are touting equal funding for all schools, which would seem to be the death knell of magnet programs, unless taxes are raisedand they’re against higher taxes. (Not that the Wake County Commissioners would be likely to approve a tax hike).

The new members have also pledged to restore the old voluntary-only approach to year-round schools, ending student assignments to them. But that could result in overcrowding of other schools.

Matthew Brown, a spokesman for Concerned Citizens for African-American Children thinks the complexity of the issues may rein in the majority. “The new members are intelligent, accomplished people,” Brown said, “[who] want to be successful board members. Yet they will be perceived as failures if, under their watch, the schools segregate, much of the middle class flees to private schools and test score decline.

“Our job as citizens is to present them with the data and trust that they’ll take the time to study it,” Brown said.

If they don’t, though, the state NAACP has made it clear it will sue Wake County, rather than allow a neighborhood-schools policy to result in resegregation. “When children are packed into the most underfunded, most segregated, most high-poverty schools,” the Rev. William Barber, state NAACP president said in a recent speech, “it is nothing but a form of institutionalized child abuse.”

Barber called the current diversity policy “noble.”

The conservatives who swept the new majority into office, however, aren’t idle. In an e-mail, Dallas Woodhouse, state director of Americans for Prosperity, a group recently engaged in fighting health care reform, called on his teabag crowd to show up in force at the Dec. 15 board meeting. “Clearly, union organizers will stop at nothing to protect the status quo at the expense of our children, taxpayers and the will of the voters,” Woodhouse wrote.

With the level of animosity increasing on both sides, ousted board chair Kevin Hill’s call for unity may be fruitless. But he’s willing to work together if Margiotta and company are. “I don’t feel that the community or Wake County will move forward with a divided board,” Hill said.