Diversity debate turns into war of words

Posted March 5, 2010 7:56 p.m. EST
Updated March 5, 2010 8:15 p.m. EST

— Parents and students at Athens Drive High School Friday decried the name-calling in the debate over student assignment, saying that both sides in the emotional issue are overlooking the most important job of the school system.

"What's going to happen to our children, and what schools are they going to go to in order to get a good education?" parent Dorice Crosby asked. "It's been lost."

The back-and-forth between proponents of the Board of Education’s move to end busing for socio-economic diversity and those in favor of the current student assignment policy heated up Friday when the state NAACP called for Chairman Ron Margiotta to step down.

Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP, said a comment by Margiotta Tuesday during a heated public meeting was evidence of "racist attitudes" on the board.

Margiotta could be heard saying, “Here come the animals out of their cages.”

He could not be reached Friday but has said that the comment was out of line but had nothing to do with race. He insists he was responding to how rude people in the crowd were following statements by Bill Randall, a black Republican congressional candidate.

"I was referring to the crowd – very rude, I thought some people were. This is something we need respect for – anyone, regardless of what their positions are," Margiotta said Wednesday. "I don't try to discriminate against anyone regardless of what their position is. Certainly, I want to hear from everyone."

Randall said Friday that he disagrees with the NAACP's stance.

"I really think it's even beyond a stretch to say that it was a racial statement," he said. "You can try and stretch and pull out history and do all the verbal gymnastics you want but to find some historicity and to try to claim this is racially charged. It doesn't pass the smell test for me."

He wondered who would hold the NAACP responsible for comments attorney Al McSurely made Friday, in which he called board members pushing for change "clowns" and questioned Margiotta' educational background as someone from Italian descent.

"Was there any consequence for that? Was there anyone behind the lawyer, saying, 'Oh no, you shouldn't call them clowns.' Was that inflammatory?" Randall said. "If you're going to apply a stringent standard, be consistent."

The school board voted 5-4 Tuesday in favor of a resolution to move away from the school system's longstanding diversity policy, which buses students so that no school has more than 40 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches.

Critics of the plan argue, in part, that it will segregate poor students and keep them from receiving the same quality of education as more advantaged students. School board members, however, have insisted that they have no plans to segregate students and that student achievement is their top priority.

The comments and behavior by both sides have both parents and students calling for more civilized discussion.

"It really bothers me, because what's it teaching our kids," said Kris York, a parent with children at Athens Drive High School. "We need to respect each others' opinions and figure out what's best for our kids."

Athens Drive student Zach Barbour said he believes students are getting lost in the rhetoric.

"You're not going to solve anything by arguing," Barbour said.