The first week of 2010 saw the two sides in the Wake schools diversity battle put the gloves on and the niceties aside.
On Tuesday, Jan. 5, the Wake County Board of Education, commanded since the fall elections by a conservative majority, abruptly decided—by the now-familiar 5-4 vote—to end "mandatory" assignments to year-round schools as of the 2010-11 school year.
The majority also decreed that socioeconomic status would no longer factor in the application process to attend year-round schools, a position at odds with the county's long-standing policy of maintaining diverse student populations in every school.
Both sides in the battle viewed it as a first step toward dismantling the diversity policy and moving Wake to a system of neighborhood schools.
Two days later, a rejuvenated Wake County Taxpayers Association, the conservative group led by former state Rep. Russell Capps, welcomed the new board members to its meeting as conquering heroes. "Keep your prayers up and pay attention," Wake school board member John Tedesco told them. "Because I promise you, there's more to come. We're just getting started."
At a pro-diversity rally on Sunday, the Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP, said his organization will take to the streets, as well as the courts, to prevent the resegregation of Wake schools. "This is the time to be vigilant," Barber thundered. "Not five years from now, not three years from now ... we need to draw a line in the sand right now."
The school board's action on Jan. 5 reversed the majority's posture in mid-December, when they seemed to accede to the timetable of Superintendent Del Burns: His schedule called for reviewing the issues on year-round schools through the spring, delaying major changes until at least 2011--12.
However, reprising the tactics they used at their inaugural meeting Dec. 1 (at which the five-person majority pulled eight surprise resolutions out of their pockets with no prior notice) the majority once again unveiled a resolution on year-round schools at the last minute and passed it immediately.
The majority's move caused an angry Keith Sutton, one of the four school board members kept in the dark, to ask why the resolution wasn't presented during a freewheeling committee of the whole session earlier in the day—when the meeting topic was an upcoming survey of parents' attitudes about year-round schools.
Sutton's question went unanswered. Similarly, when Carolyn Morrison, one of Sutton's allies, asked Deborah Prickett, the resolution's sponsor, how many classroom seats will be lost in the Wake system by the policy change, Prickett could only respond: "I do not have a number on that. I do know that our staff ... is competent enough to handle making those changes."
About 30 percent of the system's 140,000 students attend year-round elementary or middle schools. (There are no year-round high schools.) The year-rounds add capacity to an overcrowded school system by using buildings for 12 months, rather than the traditional nine. All students attend classes for the legally required 180 days, but on four separate, overlapping calendar tracks. Year-round students are off three weeks at a time, instead of being off all summer.
Debra Goldman, a Prickett ally (the others are Board Chairman Ron Margiotta, Chris Malone and Tedesco), said she thinks the change to year-rounds on a volunteer-only basis may add capacity: Only about 140 students were assigned to year-round schools this year and then kept in them after their parents applied for a traditional-calendar placement. On the other hand, Goldman said, some parents who applied for year-round placements for their children weren't given them, or else the school they were offered was too far from home.
The board's survey is intended to indicate which areas of the county should have more year-round schools and which could do with with fewer of them.
What wasn't clear from the board's resolution was whether students will continue to be assigned to year-rounds but assured of a traditional-calendar option as well—or whether year-rounds will be filled only by volunteers. And if there aren't enough volunteers, then what?
"Every effort will be made to accommodate families into the calendar of their choice, whether it is year-round or traditional, at a school within proximity of their residence," the resolution states.
Only after the resolution passed did anyone in the majority ask Burns how the new policy would work or what it might mean for the system's capacity. "How will this be implemented?" Goldman wanted to know. "I don't have an answer now as to how implementation will occur," a tight-lipped Burns answered.
Burns said he would get back to them as soon as possible.
Public comment in the meeting came afterward, and diversity supporters ripped the majority's high-handedness. "I think what we witnessed tonight was a travesty of democracy," Raleigh parent Chris Frey said. "We expect our students to do their homework. But this board has failed to do its homework."
Tthe roughly 80 folks at the Wake Taxpayers Association meeting in North Raleigh—all but one of them white—cheered lustily Thursday night when Prickett, Goldman, Malone and Tedesco took their turns at the microphone. Prickett said that, even in tough economic times when money for more schools is in short supply, all parents should be able to choose whether their children attend a traditional-calendar school or a year-round school.
"It's a moral issue to me," Prickett said. "We gave families back choice, and that's freedom."
The four discussed the tremendous pressure they're under: Goldman said she's been "yelled at" by audiences; Prickett said she felt like she was "in a fishbowl." Tedesco said the minority was fighting an entrenched educational bureaucracy and the established policies that it deploys "to trip us up, to tie us up, against doing the very basic thing we're supposed to do"—improve the county's educational performance.
Margiotta did not attend Thursday's meeting, avoiding any issues that might've been raised under the state's Open Meetings Law. (The statute sets rules for official public bodies whenever a majority of the members are together and discuss policy matters.) But Margiotta is well known to the Taxpayers Association as "Papa Ron," a man who for the last six years was the board's only conservative member but is suddenly its chair.
"Papa Ron is dead-on, folks," said Taxpayers Association board member Coye Cook, "don't you never underestimate him. And now he's got four people to stand solid behind him."
Cook and Capps each counseled the four new members to ignore public criticism or liberal outrage. Capps recalled the ridicule he received when, as a legislator, he introduced a bill to stop evolution from being taught in the public schools as fact. "If you do right," he told them, "the liberals are going to try to make something out of you."
Tedesco said he's ready to take the liberals on. His goal, he said, is to replace the existing school assignment policies, including any student transportation that's associated with diversity, with a policy based on community assignment zones. "Basically, you live in a zone, you go to school in your zone," he said.
To the 150 people—two-thirds of them black—who attended the NAACP-sponsored forum Sunday in Southeast Raleigh, sentiments like Tedesco's smacked of Jesse Helms' attacks on "busin'" during the civil rights era.
"Neighborhood schools" sounds good, said civil rights attorney Al McSurely, who is white, but many neighborhoods are still segregated, racially or by income levels. "The question is, how are they going to end 'forced busing' and have neighborhood schools and not resegregate? McSurely said.
Barber, the NAACP president, said courts have established under both the federal and state constitutions that children have a right to an equal education in an integrated school. The evidence is unequivocal, he argued, that children do worse in high-poverty schools. Trapping children in them is therefore unconstitutional.
"Separate cannot be equal," Barber declared, his finger pointed outward. "In this room," he said as the crowd cheered, "what we must make a commitment to do is fight for what is right."