Raleigh, N.C. — The 5-4 votes along political lines that have marked the Wake County Board of Education's actions in recent years, including Tuesday's firing of Superintendent Tony Tata, are part of a growing national trend.
Bitter partisanship at the national level is trickling down to school systems across the country, according to Ann Denlinger, head of the Education Department at William Peace University in Raleigh.
Denlinger spent 24 years in the Wake County school district before serving as superintendent in Wilson and Durham counties. She came back to Raleigh in 2007 to lead the Wake Educational Partnership before joining the Peace University faculty last year.
A lot of politicians start their careers on school boards, where they deal with some pretty hot topics, from charter schools to tuition vouchers to unions, she said.
In Wake County, she said, the politicization of the school board has been building for years.
"It's not something that happened overnight," she said.
Two decades ago, rapid growth led to a school building boom. Students' schools were changed repeatedly as the board struggled to fill new schools according to an assignment plan written in the 1980s.
Denlinger said the board didn't listen to parents as they grew more frustrated over the reassignments.
"We missed the opportunity to have those discussions, and so, as in most cases when it gets to the political arena, we go from one extreme to another," she said.
The pendulum started swinging in 2009, with the Republican takeover of the board. Denlinger said it was the first time she had ever heard a school board member claim a political party.
Last year, Democratic candidates retook the majority position on the board.
"Instead of it being about sitting down and talking about our children all across this county, it was about winning and losing. It was about Democrats and Republicans," she said of the election cycle.
Partisanship takes the focus off students, she said, adding that community leaders from both parties will need to pressure the school board members to work together.
"There's a reason you're not elected as a Democrat or a Republican," she said. "It was designed correctly, and so folks, let's get back to what made us great."