The melodrama touched off two years ago by the election of a partisan conservative majority on the Wake County Board of Education is national newsand not in a good way for our image as a place of innovation built on high-quality schools and universities. In a word, Wake's Republican school board majority is now a laughingstock for its backward thinking, twisted rhetoric and tea party politics. But there's nothing funny about where they're headed with our schools if voters don't stop them this year.
Here are two facts usually overlooked about that pivotal '09 election:
Very few voters—about 10 percent of those eligible to vote—went to the polls, even though, as the winners were quick to say, the turnout was better than in previous elections. Better on their side, that is.
Second, the '09 elections were held in just four of the nine school board districts—meaning that most of Raleigh, contained in four other districts, didn't vote. But the suburbs did.
This year, the four Raleigh-heavy districts will have their chance along with a fifth district in southwest Wake where school board chairman Ron Margiotta is up for re-election. Indy readers won't be surprised that we think Margiotta should be removed from office in District 8. We're backing candidates in the four other districts who are not aligned with Margiotta's partisan—that is, Republican—platform.
Our endorsed candidates are: Kevin Hill in District 3 (North Raleigh), Keith Sutton in District 4 (Southeast Raleigh), Jim Martin in District 5 (Raleigh and part of Southwest Wake), Christine Kushner in District 6 (Central Raleigh) and Susan Evans in District 8 (Southwest Wake).
If all five win, the 5-4 conservative majority on the board will be ousted, replaced by a new 5-4 majority of moderate candidates.
It can happen if the voters who believe in public education and want every child in the county to get a good one take time to vote. Two years ago, they stayed away in droves, and they let the tea party win. We've seen what followed.
The Republicans, having successfully polarized the school board elections in'09, have taken to arguing that both parties are complicit in the partisanship, because the major candidates pitted against them are all registered Democrats, and they're running with the support of the Wake County Democratic Party.
True, but as with so many things the Republicans say, it's not the whole truth or the real truth, and here's why. With the exception of Sutton, the Democratic candidates have no history in partisan politics and no aspirations for higher office. Contrast them with the Republican candidates, at least four of whom—including Margiotta, their leader—are Republican activists to the core.
If elected, these Republican politicos would be joined with tea party favorite John Tedesco, whose naked political ambitions are on daily display, and Chris Malone, who recently announced that he's running for a seat in the General Assembly next year.
Both slates partisan? It's as if, having set the house on fire, the Republicans are calling their opponents arsonists for bringing in some hoses.
Here is a little history: For three decades prior to the '09 elections, the Wake schools were governed by a succession of bipartisan boards whose members, Democrats and Republicans, acted by consensus. They shared the belief that all schools, regardless of location, should have diverse, broadly representative student bodies, and no school should be overloaded with high-needs kids from low-income families. They created a system of magnet schools, considered by many to be the best such "parental choice" program in the country, to help with the mix. Few thought of school board service as a stepping stone to higher office. Most weren't into politics, only public service.
The era of consensus ended abruptly, however, when the four conservative Republicans won their seats, joining Margiotta to form the "new majority." How partisan are they? Partisan enough to like it when their fellow Republicans on the county commission and in the General Assembly cut school funding.
The new majority quickly junked the consensus diversity policy in favor of so-called neighborhood schools, which, if carried to their logical conclusion in Wake County, would mean schools full of upscale kids in the suburbs—their districts—and high-poverty schools in Raleigh's poorest neighborhoods.
Worse, they did so behind a fusillade of falsehoods and half-truths, usually from Tedesco, about how the school system was in decline and the diversity policy was a plot against low-income kids—a way to hide them in magnet schools and suburban schools. Against the evidence from everywhere else in the country, including the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, that high-poverty schools get the worst results for low-income kids, Margiotta and company maintained with straight faces that putting all the poor kids together was Step 1 to helping them.
Before the majority could execute its radical approach, however, community and business leaders rose up and said stop. When they did, one of the majority five, Debra Goldman, backed away, a sin for which the others have punished her by handing her vice chairperson role to Tedesco.
With Goldman exhibiting signs of independence, the Republicans are keen to "Goldman-proof" their majority by holding Margiotta's seat and winning at least one more. That could be a disaster.
Not everything the new majority's done is objectionable. Indeed, it made good changes over the past two years to formerly punitive school discipline policies and to math placement policies that excluded too many capable kids from Algebra I in middle school. But to hear Tedesco tell it, he invented the changes. He didn't. They were in the works before he took his school board seat.
Did the Wake system have problems? Sure, and the main one was not enough schools to cope with Wake's rapid growth, which forced school officials to conduct the annual process of musical chairs called student reassignments. Especially in the fast-growing, classroom-short suburbs, it finally drove the voters crazy.
But does this sound familiar? The problem started with conservative politicians whose cheapskate policies put the schools in jeopardy. It was the Republican county commissioners, for example, who insisted—to save money—that every elementary and middle school built with 2006 bond money be a year-round school.
But when the stuff hit the fan and parents objected to mandatory year-round assignments, guess who the Republicans blamed? That's right, it was Barack Obama. No, that's a joke. They blamed the Democrats on the school board.
What's needed now is a board that is composed of real public servants who govern by consensus and who look for a balanced approach to student assignment, probably along the lines of the original Blue Plan advocated by Tony Tata, Superintendent Del Burns' replacement. Ironically, Tata was the new majority's choice, but he has spoken up for diversity in student assignments because, well, it's important. And, as Tata never fails to mention, it saves money.
Consequently, the majority keeps delaying action on Tata's plan, and it's clear that if they win the elections, they'll take the diversity element out of it. Hopefully, they won't win any of these races.
Hill, an incumbent seeking his second term, is our choice. A former teacher and principal in Wake County who now teaches future teachers at N.C. State, Hill's kept his cool—maybe too much so—and tried to find common ground with the Republicans despite their bullying. In fact, Hill was board chairman until the new majority came in and ousted him in midterm, a sharp departure from past practice. A bit of a wonk, he likes to act based on facts and the best educational research. That the Republicans' don't—and cherry-pick the facts to support whatever it is they're up to—gets under his skin, but usually he doesn't show it.
Hill's chief rival is Heather Losurdo, who was president of the powerful North Wake Republican Club until she jumped into the race. Losurdo, an Air Force vet and mother of two, has been in Wake County for just three years, but her political skills are obvious. They're also not what this school board needs.
Jennifer Mansfield, an unaffiliated voter who was a school board critic before Losurdo hit town, promises "progress, not politics." It's a good idea, and she might be a good school board member in a different environment. But this year, in a race between two candidates with strong financial support from the two political parties, a vote for Mansfield is a vote that Hill needs in order to ward off Losurdo.
Eric Squires, a Republican, is also running, but it's not clear why. He's not raising money. And he thinks the school system has been strong for years—which is why he should vote for Hill.
Sutton showed his cool when pro-diversity demonstrators disrupted a school board meeting. Wading into the crowd in an effort to calm things down, Sutton was mistaken by the cops, who put him in an arm lock. His reaction? He waited patiently while they sorted things out. Sutton's been waiting for this school board to sort things out, never failing to speak up for his constituents but also exhibiting his willingness to give a little if the Republicans would too. Sutton established a Triangle chapter of the National Urban League before taking a post with Gov. Bev Perdue. On the Democratic side, he's the candidate with political skills.
Republican Venita Peyton is a perennial candidate whose own party—to judge by its lack of financial backing—is uninterested in her. She said she skipped the only scheduled debate with Sutton because she wasn't asked where it should be held.
This seat is currently held by Anne McLaurin, a Democrat who is not seeking re-election. She's supporting—and we are too—Martin, an N.C. State University chemistry professor, to succeed her. Martin is a proponent of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) training along with the arts; in high school, he says, the course that taught him the most about careful methodology was woodshop. Martin's been a regular at school board meetings for the past two years. He was one of the first to recognize that growth had swamped the old diversity policy, but a middle course was possible between it and the Republicans' neighborhood-schools approach.
Cynthia Matson, the Republican candidate, was one of the original proponents of neighborhood schools as the leader of Assignment By Choice (ABC), a forerunner of WakeCARES, which led to the Wake Schools Community Alliance, which led to the mess we're in under Republican auspices.
Kushner, whom we support, was a Morehead Scholar at UNC-Chapel Hill and earned a master's degree in public policy from Princeton University. She has a background in journalism (including at The News & Observer) and in PTA leadership, and promises to bring a nonpolitical approach to the board. She favors expanding school choice for parents by creating more small schools (e.g., STEM schools and global academies) and wants to focus on middle-school curricular improvements. This seat is being vacated by Carolyn Morrison, a former school principal. Kushner will be a worthy successor.
On the Republican slate, Donna Williams was the founding president of the Northern Wake Republican Club and is a strong supporter of the Margiotta majority. Again, she has Republican political skills where they're not needed. Williams' husband is a partner in the firm Acadia NorthStar, which does the data management work for most of the charter schools in the state.
Two other Democrats, both retired educators, are running in this district. Mary Ann Weathers, former assistant superintendent in Moore County, is an outspoken critic of the Margiotta board, calling it the worst in the country. But she has raised little money and isn't running an active campaign. The same is true for George Morgan, a former teacher and a principal in the Wake schools.
The incumbent in this district is Margiotta, "Papa Ron" on the Republican circuit and a board chairman infamous for saying, as his critics were lining up to speak during the public portion of a school board meeting, "Here come the animals." One thing you can say for Margiotta: He's for neighborhood schools, period, and diversity—and a balanced school system—be darned. He sees no conflict in serving on the board of a private school in Apex.
We support Evans, a Democrat who is a certified public accountant and owns a residential construction and land development business. She is also a longtime PTA and church leader. Evans has been active in the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, a pro-diversity group, and is a regular at school board meetings over the past two years. Her critique: Excellent, diverse schools help all Wake businesses prosper; don't tear the system apart.
To learn about the candidates' stances on the issues, read their 2011 Candidate Questionnaires.