Here's the setup: The nine members of the Wake County Board of Education run for four-year terms, each representing a district. Five members were elected two years ago; four will be elected this year. Thus, only the voters who live in Districts 1, 2, 7 and 9 will elect candidates in 2013. And they'll vote only for their own district's representative.
All Wake voters, however, can vote on the proposed $810 million bond issue for schools. (See "Bond referenda: Say yes to improving schools and roads.")
This short refresher course is offered as a reminder of what happened in the school board elections four years ago. Going into that contest, the board had just one Republican—Ron Margiotta. Coming out of it, four more Republicans had been elected, creating the 5-4 "Margiotta Majority," which ruled for the next two years. The traditionally bipartisan—nonpartisan, technically—school board had been captured by a riled-up political party bent on imposing its conservative ideology.
Out went Wake's much-celebrated diversity policy, with its goal of equally good schools across the county, each with a mix of students by race and family income. In came "neighborhood schools." Under the GOP plan, every school would reflect its neighborhood. Some would be rich. Some would be poor. The diversity policy was repealed.
The havoc that ensued made national headlines. The school superintendent, Del Burns, quit in protest. The Republicans, led by Chairman Margiotta, brought in a former army general named Tony Tata as Burns' replacement. Tata and the Republicans squeezed the budget, in league with the GOP-controlled Wake commissioners. Finally, Tata's controversial school choice plan blew up in his face when it proved to require not less but more busing than the diversity policy.
Except, oops, in the Tata-GOP budget, the number of buses had been slashed.
In the 2011 elections, the voters ousted Margiotta and his majority evaporated. The five winners were all pro-diversity candidates, all registered Democrats. They pledged to undo the damage the Republicans had done and restore excellence in every school as the system's goal. Thus far, the new board majority has done pretty well, though that's a relative result given the hatchet job the Republican-controlled General Assembly has done on state aid to schools.
Meanwhile, three of the four Republican members elected to the school board in 2009 have moved on. Chris Malone was elected to a State House seat. Debra Goldman ran for state auditor, lost, and resigned from the board. John Tedesco ran for state superintendent of schools, lost, and isn't seeking re-election. Only Deborah Prickett is seeking another term.
What the school board needs this year is reinforcement, not another wrecking crew. We've made our endorsements with that goal in mind. It also needs—and it's a desperate need, given the steady growth of the system—money for new schools and renovations to older schools. That's what the $810 million bond issue on this year's ballot is for.
Chris Malone resigned this seat after he was elected to the General Assembly in 2012. The new board majority chose well when it replaced him with Tom Benton, who is seeking a full term in this election. We endorse his candidacy.
Benton is a retired teacher and school principal whose 40-year career in North Carolina, much of it in Wake County, earned him a host of awards. At Durant Middle School, he was twice named North Carolina's Regional Principal of the Year. As a college teacher and in several school leadership programs, Benton continues to train principals. He promises he won't be shy about calling on the Wake commissioners (as well as the General Assembly) to supply more money to the schools. "We have got to find ways to better compensate our staff," he says.
"The issue of equity of programs, resources and services across the district is a major focus of mine," Benton adds. He points to a curriculum audit showing the need for more resources in eastern Wake schools, especially in Knightdale, pledging to follow through with the help of a staff-led task force.
A registered Democrat, Benton is supported by a bipartisan group that includes former state auditor Les Merritt, a Republican.
By contrast, Republican Don McIntyre, the other candidate in this district, has the backing of some fellow Republicans only, including Malone. He is a Navy vet and a lawyer who lived in California until 2005, when he retired and returned to his native state. He has a skimpy platform emphasizing neighborhood schools and more vocational training for high-school students, many of whom—he says—don't need to be thinking about a four-year college degree.
Will you miss John Tedesco? No, we won't either, though as he departs we will salute his pluck as ardent defender of the Margiotta Majority's good intentions. Tedesco was rarely persuasive. But he was never daunted.
Fortunately, the only viable candidate in this district is also first-rate. Monika Johnson-Hostler has a master's degree in public administration from N.C. Central University. She's executive director of the N.C. Coalition Against Sexual Assault, representing groups that work to end violence against women and children. She's also a PTA mom with a daughter in third grade and a husband who is a high-school math teacher. She pledges to seek additional funding for the schools and to work to reduce the achievement gap by offering every child—regardless of where they live—"a high-quality education to help them fully participate and contribute to our community."
Johnson-Hostler is also a strong supporter of the $810 million bond issue, as are all of the candidates we're endorsing. In fact, that's as close to a prerequisite as we have.
The one candidate attacking the bond issue is tea-party devotee named Matt Scruggs, the opponent of Johnson-Hostler. Scruggs skipped the only debate thus far in this race, and he didn't bother to answer our questionnaire. But his campaign website indicates that he works for Carquest Auto Parts, is working on a college degree and supports neighborhood schools. And he's excited about some private schools he heard about at a meeting of the Patriot's Assembly, a tea-party group.
Scruggs blogged that the bond issue is unnecessary because there are "other ways" to address the county's growing school population. Other ways? He doesn't offer any—but if you write to him, he'll get back to you, he says.
Deborah Prickett, the incumbent running for re-election, set the tone for what followed when she thanked the Republican Party for her victory after the 2009 elections. To that point, school board members adhered to a tradition of setting partisanship aside during their service. But Prickett, a neighborhood schools advocate who works as a consultant to the state Department of Public Instruction overseeing after-school programs, was and is a Republican partisan. She makes no bones about it.
We endorse Zora Felton, who taught social studies in the Wake schools for 25 years before retiring in 2013. Felton comes from a family of educators—her mother, her sister, a daughter—and raised three children who graduated from Wake County high schools and earned UNC degrees. Felton's focus is on attracting and retaining well-qualified teachers and staff. To that end, she promises to work for better pay and to "be a real partner for our teachers" in setting goals for higher student achievement. "I will work with a teacher's perspective," she says.
Felton and Prickett both support the $810 million bond issue.
Two smart and well-qualified candidates from Cary are running for this seat. Still, we think the clear choice is Bill Fletcher, based on his greater experience and skills as a proven leader in Wake County.
Fletcher, a real estate and insurance agent, is the incumbent. He was appointed by the current board majority to fill the vacancy created when Debra Goldman resigned. It's his second time around on the board. Fletcher served for 12 years from 1993 to 2005, starting out as a conservative critic of busing but converting to a staunch advocate for diversity and limited busing to achieve it. Today, he says flatly, "The research is clear that it is extremely difficult for students in high-poverty schools to excel," and hard for teachers to help if too many in a class are high-needs students. "Student assignment plans must embrace this teacher-effectiveness factor," he says.
In a debate last week, Fletcher and opponent Nancy Caggia agreed on virtually every subject. Both said the Wake schools need more money. Both said they've got to make a case to the public to get it. Both backed the bond issue. Both expressed concern about the high rate of out-of-school suspensions, especially for minority students.
And both, incidentally, are registered Republicans who pledge to take the politics out of the school board. Indeed, Caggia enjoys the support of several prominent Cary Democrats, including Mayor Harold Weinbrecht and Town Council members Lori Bush and Gale Adcock.
Still, Fletcher was the choice of the school board over Caggia, a PTA and community leader in Cary who also applied for the seat. Why? Probably for the same reasons we're endorsing him. The current board is relatively green (four members are serving their first terms), and it will be greener still if Benton, Johnson-Hostler and Felton are elected. Fletcher adds strong experience and a mastery of how this board used to function before it was infected by party politics.
Moreover, as was clear during their debate, Fletcher is a very effective public speaker, with the talent to be definite and personable at the same time. He had a terrific reputation for working well with people, whether they agreed with him or not, when he was on the board before. He hasn't lost that skill.
And let's face it, this board of mostly registered Democrats needs a Republican who can help them make a bipartisan case for nonpartisan policies. Caggia might be good at that. Fletcher is good at it.