At the end of a long day that began with his opponent, Cathy Truitt, withdrawing from and conceding in the District 2 Wake school board election runoff, a tired John Tedesco wasn't quite ready to call himself the winner—and officially, he isn't just yet. Yet even as he worried about persuading his supporters to show up at the polls Nov. 3, Tedesco could claim the seat representing Garner and Fuquay-Varina—and his place in a new, conquering 5-4 school board majority bent on junking Wake County's diversity regime in favor of a "neighborhood schools" plan.
When Truitt withdrew Monday morning, she issued a sharp warning about the "probable resegregation" of the Wake system under Tedesco and his four allies. Truitt, also a Republican and a career educator, finished a distant second in the Oct. 6 balloting to Tedesco, who fell just short of an outright majority in a five-way race with 49 percent of the vote. But after Truitt called for a runoff—requiring every precinct in District 2 to be open Nov. 3—she unexpectedly quit her campaign, declaring it unwinnable.
At a press conference, Truitt called the new majority politically "savvy" and said it will move swiftly to install its new policies "before opposition forms." She urged parents and community leaders who believe in diversity and oppose resegregation to organize now, before it's too late.
Truitt added that when she sought endorsements from the Wake County Republican Party and the Wake Schools Community Alliance, both groups made it clear that they wanted Superintendent Del Burns replaced. She wouldn't commit to firing him, she said, and they subsequently endorsed Tedesco.
But Tedesco, a 34-year-old New Jersey transplant and a Republican with good things to say about President Barack Obama's education policies, emphasized his opposition to any abrupt overthrow of the status quo. Before the board institutes major changes, he said, the new majority should initiate a community-wide visioning process about the future of Wake County schools, "making sure that everybody's voice is at the table and [with the goal of] building a shared vision" to guide the board.
"Nobody's running in there roughshod," Tedesco countered. "We're not going to do this as a rush job."
As for Burns, Tedesco added, neither the Wake GOP nor the WSCA ever mentioned wanting to fire him, and Tedesco said he has no intention of doing so. Rather, he said, Burns should be asked to develop a plan within 90 days for making a six-month transition to neighborhood schools.
"Why wouldn't we give the man a shot to work with us on creating a new vision?" Tedesco said. "Now, if he doesn't want it, that's another story."
On the issue of whether neighborhood schools will result in segregated schools, either by race or income, Tedesco admitted, "I don't have an easy answer on that one. I don't have all the answers—that's why I want to build a community vision."
Diversity supporters argued that when a school "tips" so that a majority of its students are from low-income households (as measured by their eligibility for the free-and-reduced lunch program), higher-income parents start pulling out their kids, triggering a downward cycle for the school.
In recent years, the Wake school board tried to keep every school below the 40 percent threshold of students eligible for the free- and reduced-lunch program. But the board has been less successful in meeting that goal, due to suburban growth and a steady increase in the number of low-income families living in the eastern part of the county. Last year, one-third of Wake's schools were above the 40 percent target.
Tedesco's view is that there's no "magic number," or if there is one, he doesn't know what it is. But if a neighborhood is predominantly low-income, he added, its schools will require additional community resources to succeed, such as a family resource center run by the county's human services department or an evening GED program for parents.
Strong after-school programs are a must, he said, and early-warning systems should be in place in every school so that students who fall behind in grades 1 through 3 immediately receive the extra help they need.
Tedesco likens his support for "community schools" to policies supported by the Obama administration and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who advocated for them when he was in charge of the Chicago school system. The basic idea is that businesses and nonprofits help students and their parents realize their educational and career potential.
Tedesco is head of a nonprofit, the Triangle chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, an organization that assists disadvantaged kids.
He's met with leaders in Southeast Raleigh, historically the heart of Wake County's African-American community, including newly appointed school board member Keith Sutton, and most have a "legitimate fear" of resegregation, Tedesco acknowledged.
But many of these leaders also want parents to be involved in their kids' schools, which is difficult if the kids are bused for diversity purposes to a school in Cary or Garner.
Tedesco said he told the leaders that if a community school is based in a low-income Southeast Raleigh neighborhood, "I'm committed to making it the gem of our network."
"Of course, I'm only one voice on the board," Tedesco added, part of the majority formed by holdover member Ron Margiotta of Apex and three other newly elected candidates backed by the GOP-WSCA alliance. "But hopefully, a persuasive voice."
A protocol note: Due to the timing of Truitt's withdrawal from the runoff, her name stays on the ballot. After the Nov. 3 election, the Wake County Board of Elections will count her votes and if she receives more than Tedesco, he won't win—but neither will she. A vacancy would be created, which the other eight members of the Wake County School Board would fill.