Education

Strong emotions, opinion surround Wake diversity debate

Posted March 3, 2010 7:29 p.m. EST
Updated March 10, 2010 9:01 p.m. EST

— When Wake County decided to do away with race-based busing as a means to desegregate schools more than a decade ago, local officials came up with a new way to maintain balance – assign students by their socio-economic background.

The longstanding busing policy, however, has never sat well with many parents who have argued that the student assignment plan sends their children too far from home.

Now, those parents appear to be getting their wish.

After a heated and sometimes intense debate, the school board on Tuesday voted 5-4 in favor of a resolution to begin moving away from the diversity policy toward a new model that would give parents choices while keeping their children close to home.

What's being considered is a plan calling for "community assignment areas," meaning each home would be given a number of education options. Ideally, board member John Tedesco has said, that would include a mixture of magnet schools, as well as those on year-round and traditional calendars.

"The community zone-based model gives us an opportunity to get that win-win by creating broader geographic zones – 5-, 6-, 7-mile areas," Tedesco said Wednesday.

But critics of the plan and the new school board majority – four new members campaigned last fall on the platform of ending the diversity policy – argue the plan will lead to re-segregation.

The public has voiced strong opposition over the past several months. School board meetings have drawn large crowds with the public expressing outrage over the matter.

Nearly 100 people lined up to speak at Tuesday's meeting. One audience member urged the board not to dump the diversity plan and decried "white racists."

"If you want to go to hell, don't expect to take our children with you," he said to the board as authorities approached to calm him down.

The state chapter of the NAACP has threatened to sue, likening the plan to school policies in Wayne and Mecklenburg counties, where it claims segregation does exist.

Board Chairman Ron Margiotta has vowed that the change is in the interest of students and bristles at any suggestion that the move had something to do with race.

"It's something that offends me," Margiotta said. "Nobody's going to go back to Jim Crow days."

Wake's diversity policy became a popular model in 2007, when the U.S. Supreme Court limited the use of race in how districts assign students.

The current policy to send students to schools to achieve socioeconomic diversity, which also improved racial diversity by frequently sending lower-income black children from the city's center to predominantly white schools in the suburbs.

Some schools also created magnet programs to attract students from other neighborhoods with advanced courses in foreign languages, science and other subjects.

Margiotta said the busing program has not helped minority students and has distracted from focusing on stronger education policy.

"What we're doing isn't working," he said.

Even among board members though, there's contention and apparent aggravation. At Tuesday's meeting, members with opposing views traded strong words and comments left looks of bewilderment on some members' faces.

"I don't know that I was frustrated. I think we were able to accomplish what we set out to do," Margiotta said. "I feel a little disappointed in some people in the way they're trying to block what's going on, instead of join us to improve what's going on."

Some observers call the meetings dysfunctional.

"The bickering at the table is discouraging for the public. It's very discouraging and seems unprofessional," said Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of Great Schools in Wake Coalition, a community group that opposes the board majority's move.

Brannon believes the board is moving too fast. Those who side with the majority, however, say it's not fast enough.

Kristen Stocking, founder of Wake Schools Community Alliance, likens the school system to a sick patient. Having worked for large businesses, she says change must be quick for there to be success.

"I know drastic change has to be done quickly. You've got to pull the Band-Aid off quickly in order to let the wound heal," Stocking said. "I think it's going to be painful. It's going to be messy, but in the long run, I'm supremely confident the results will be beneficial to all of the kids in the system."

Still unanswered are many questions. Among them: What will the school board do to prevent opponents' fears from coming true?

Tedesco says the resolution, which must go up for a second vote on March 23 to be official – is a direction and that more discussion will follow. It will take about 9 to 15 months for a plan to be in place.

"Wake County is probably one of the most diverse counties in this state," Tedesco said. "This is 2010 in the Research Triangle. We are very integrated. We are very diverse."

Chuck Dulaney, who retired March 1 after four years as the school system's assistant superintendent for growth and planning, however, has concern about separation in the southern and eastern parts of Raleigh.

"If you draw a zone that includes that cluster of schools, how could you ever have much diversity – other than African-American and Hispanic students coming primarily from low-income families?"

"I don't think diversity makes success happen, but I think it enables success to happen," he added.