Wake County Schools

Elections might not derail Wake student assignment plan

Posted October 12, 2011 9:16 a.m. EDT
Updated October 17, 2011 2:40 p.m. EDT

Wake County Public School System

— The election of four Democratic-backed candidates and a runoff for the final seat on the Wake County Board of Education might not necessarily mean big changes to a new student assignment policy that's been two years in the making.

Four Democratic-backed candidates – incumbent Keith Sutton in east Raleigh (District 4), Jim Martin in south-central Raleigh (District 5), Christine Kushner in central Raleigh (District 6) and Susan Evans in southern Wake County (District 8) – won seats on the Wake County school board in elections Tuesday.

Incumbent Kevin Hill, a Democrat, and Republican challenger Heather Losurdo are expected to face off in a runoff Nov. 8 to decide who will represent north Raleigh (District 3) on the governing board of the state's largest school system.

Hill finished election night with 49.7 percent of the votes in District 3, just shy of the 50 percent he needed to win. Losurdo requested the runoff.

"I won't stop, no matter what happens," Losurdo said Tuesday.

School board vice chairman John Tedesco, part of a Republican-backed majority elected to the board in 2009, said Tuesday night that the new student assignment policy is at stake in the runoff. He promised to support Losurdo.

"Do we go to neighborhood schools, or do we go to busing-for-quota systems?" Tedesco said.

Losurdo stressed that no party would be influencing the way she votes on the board, if elected. 

"I think we all need to calm down and talk as adults and professionals and figure out what's best for our children," Losurdo said. "I am an independent voice and independent thinker and no big party or John Tedesco is going to influence me."

Hill said he is nonpartisan as well. 

"We're supposed to be in it for the students. (It) doesn't have anything to do with the majority or minority members (and) doesn't have anything to do with the Republicans and Democrats," Hill said. 

But David McLennan, a political science professor at William Peace University, said Wednesday that it's impossible to take politics out of the equation. 

"The stakes are high, the sides are very polarized and active," he said. "Here we saw $400,000 spent across the school board races. (That) broke all records."

According to the State Board of Elections, Hill pulled in more than $24,000 from donors and Losurdo raised $40,000 – numbers that are sure to grow in the run-up to Nov. 8.

Hill said that he disagrees with Tedesco that the runoff will decide whether the new assignment plan moves forward or whether the district returns to assigning students to help achieve socioeconomic diversity. He said he's unsure what will happen with the proposal at a vote planned next Tuesday.

Evans, who defeated school board Chairman Ron Margiotta, said Tuesday night that she doesn't think the new board, whatever its final makeup is, will make any rash decisions.

"We're looking at having a school board again that will talk together, collaborate together, make thoughtful decisions together in a respectful manner," she said.

Superintendent Tony Tata said Wednesday that he believes his team has put together a good assignment plan that doesn't involve politics.

"We have had a very non-political process. It has been a completely transparent process," he said. "We've had over 20 public-engagement meetings on the assignment plan, and we feel like we have a very solid plan."

Tata said he's ready to work with the new and current school board to ensure that the plan moves forward.

The proposed student assignment policy aims at giving parents choices for their children's education while keeping students closer to their homes. Opponents, including the state chapter of the NAACP, say the move would create pockets of poverty in the school system and segregate schools.

Under the plan, parents could choose among at least five elementary schools and two middle and high schools – including traditional, year-round, magnet and high-performing schools – based on where they live.

Parents would have priority at schools closest to their home and where children have a sibling attending. Students already enrolled in the district may also stay at their current school. Students in schools considered low-performing will also be able to chose to attend a school that's considered high-performing, based on test scores and qualified teachers.

Before the election, none of the eventually victorious school-board candidates said they would not support the new plan. They all said they had questions about it, but most also said there are elements of it that they agree with.

  • Sutton: "No plan is going to be foolproof or perfect, but I think we have seen a lot of progress."
  • Kushner: "I still need more information before I can say whether I would support it. I think it is promising, and it is important that we find a new, stable assignment plan. I still have questions about the real options that students in lower-performing schools will have."
  • Martin: "I stand by what I have written about the assignment plan before. I am neither for or against the plan, but I would like to know what the 20 percent lowest-chosen schools are and what will be done to increase the probability that they are chosen."
  • Hill: "I'm cautiously optimistic, but I'm concerned about the timeframe we're being asked to do this in."
  • Evans: "I think, with a little bit of tweaking, it is something I could support. The most positive thing is that it promises to offer stability and prevent reassignments. I am still reserving judgment on a few things, including higher-performing schools and whether students in low-performing schools will really be guaranteed seats in the higher-achieving options."

The new school board members will take their seats in December.