School controversy could mean big Wake voter turnout
Posted September 23, 2011
Updated September 25, 2011
Raleigh, N.C. — Wake County elections officials said Friday that they are expecting a larger turnout this year than in previous off-year elections because of the school board races.
Fourteen candidates are running for five seats in the Oct. 11 election that could shift the balance of power on the Board of Education.
The nonpartisan races have become very political and heated in previous weeks, with personal attacks, anonymous fliers and at least one website throwing into question a candidate's online behavior, political views and ability to serve.
The school board attracted national attention last year when the board's Republican-backed majority changed the district's student assignment policy, which, for years, bused students across district lines to help balance the socio-economic make-ups of each school.
The controversial move toward a neighborhood, or community-based, assignment model divided the county, because it eliminated diversity as a factor when it came to where students should go to school.
Hundreds of people attended school board meetings and spoke for and against the change. People protested and held sit-ins, and a handful were arrested.
"We have felt for a long time that the Board of Education was going to draw voters out," Wake County Board of Elections Director Cherie Poucher said.
So far this season, the elections board has received requests for more than 1,000 absentee ballots, Poucher said. In 2009, it received about 300 requests.
"We're very hopeful, and we are anticipating that the turnout is going to be increased,” she said.
North Carolina State University political science professor Andy Taylor says this year's election is unlike any other because of the amount of public interest.
Taylor and Toby Parcel, also an N.C. State political science professor, have been talking with parents and educators about key issues in the school board race as part of a research project.
They have found that concerns about a new assignment plan are more complex and not as polarizing as some think.
"It's not just a matter of being for diversity and against neighborhood schools," Parcel said.
"People are really wrestling with these kind of issues and see positives in both and problems in both," Taylor added.
For several months, Wake County Public School System Superintendent Tony Tata and a team of his staff have been working on a plan to implement the policy. As it stands now, it allows parents to choose from a variety of schools based on their address and takes into account achievement balance and capacity at each school.
Tata has said he plans to submit a final proposal to the school board at its Oct. 4 meeting. A vote would likely come after the election.
Many of the school board candidates have said that they still don't know enough about Tata's plan to say whether they support it or oppose it but have said they do see positive aspects in it.
At least one, Jennifer Mansfield, a candidate for the District 3 seat, however, has called on school staff to stop work on the plan and to look for an alternative measure that addresses parents' needs.
Another, Keith Sutton, the incumbent in District 4, has said that although he doesn’t oppose the plan, he would like to see the diversity factor added back into it.