For months, critics of the Wake County school system have been loading their ammunition in preparation for the board of education elections in October. A group called the Wake Schools Community Alliance (WSCA) has endorsed candidates in two of the four school-board district races, even before the official filing period opens next week.
WSCA claims a bipartisan membership, though the list of elected officials supporting it is heavily weighted to Republicans. Wake County Republican Party Chairman Claude Pope also promises an energetic campaign to take over the school board.
The critics' issue: The school board's longstanding embrace of diversity—shorthand for a set of policies, including promoting magnet schools, that seek to balance student populations in all of the county's 159 schools and to avoid loading schools with a preponderance of children from low-income families.
These policies, the critics argue, pile too many "forced" student reassignments on top of those caused by the county's rapid growth rate and the need to fill new schools.
It's not a new issue. Republicans in Wake County have attacked busing for purposes of racial or economic balance at least since the late Sen. Jesse Helms' young aide, Tom Fetzer, first ran for mayor of Raleigh in 1993. This year, ex-mayor Fetzer is the newly elected state Republican Party chairman, and his close ally Paul Coble, Helms' nephew, is one of three Republicans on the Wake County Board of Commissioners who are backing the WSCA. (The others are commissioners Joe Bryan and Tony Gurley.)
Nonetheless, pro-diversity candidates have prevailed in every school board election since the Raleigh and Wake County schools merged into a single system in 1976. Support from the business community, which views Raleigh's healthy schools as a key factor in the region's economic vitality, is one factor. Another is that education experts paint Wake's schools as a shining exception to the national trend of failed urban school districts surrounded by excellent suburban schools.
In recent months, for example, Wake's schools were held up as "a national model," in the words of Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation in Washington, D.C., at a conference on school integration hosted by UNC-Chapel Hill Law School.
Then Gerald Grant, professor emeritus at Syracuse University, published a book about the failure of most urban schools, but not Raleigh's: Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools In Raleigh.
But to WSCA members like Sarah Redpath, "healthy schools" is a term of derision. At a recent meeting in Knightdale, Redpath argued that the school board should focus on the achievement of individual students rather than that of the schools they attend. Policies that strengthen "the system," she said, hurt too many children.
"We desperately need to change the composition of the school board," Redpath said.
The WSCA says it wants "stable, neighborhood schools in a community model," with children assigned to the schools that are closest—or close—to where they live.
Despite the trend against Republicans in recent Wake elections, WSCA and GOP leaders see 2009 as a prime opportunity to seize control of the school board. To do so, they would need to win all four seats on the ballot, giving them—with holdover incumbent Ron Margiotta—a 5-4 board majority. Three of the four seats are wholly outside of Raleigh, and the fourth straddles the Republican precincts of North Raleigh and Northwest Wake. Only one of the four incumbents, Horace Tart in District 2, is seeking re-election.
The official filing period for candidates is July 6-17, so there's still time for more candidates to jump in. The early take:
DISTRICT 1: Eastern Wake County promises to be a major battleground. The WSCA has endorsed former Wake Forest Town Commissioner Chris Malone, who in successive elections in 2004 and 2005, lost a bid for county commissioner and then his local office. He's a Republican conservative and strongly anti-diversity.
Rita Rakestraw, a Democrat active on Knightdale community issues, is pro-diversity. A third candidate, busing critic Debbie Vair, a PTA leader who lives in Wake Forest, is expected to vie with Malone for votes.
DISTRICT 2: In southern Wake County, incumbent Horace Tart has two Republican challengers, neither of whom has the WSCA endorsement yet: Cathy Truitt, a retired Johnston County principal who may not be sufficiently anti-busing for the WSCA's tastes, and Arnie Osborn, an insurance agent who calls himself "a Christian conservative" and diversity "an imaginary goal."
DISTRICT 7: In this North Raleigh-North Wake district, the only announced candidate is Deborah Prickett, who works in the state Department of Public Instruction. She's a registered independent who is backed by the WSCA. School board supporters are working to recruit a successor to the outgoing Patti Head, a Republican who backed diversity.
DISTRICT 9: In the heart of Cary, another battleground, Republican Ray Martin, a Chapel Hill technology education teacher and unsuccessful school board candidate in the past, is pitted against Lois Nixon, who told the Indy she will announce her candidacy this week. Nixon is an environmental educator and former coordinator of the Keep America Beautiful program in Wake County. She's active on the education committee of WakeUP Wake County, the growth-management group. The WSCA is expected to field a third candidate in this district.
Unlike county commissioners, which are elected at-large, school board candidates are elected by district. They must live in their district and voters can cast ballots only for those candidates from that district.
Early voting begins Sept. 17; Election Day is Oct. 6. If necessary, runoffs will be held Nov. 3.
Corrections (July 2, 2009): See first comment below. Also, WSCA member Sarah Redpath.