Blog: July 20 Wake school board meeting

The first time speakers went to the microphone at the Wake County school board's Tuesday meeting, more than a dozen were arrested. Late in the meeting, things were more calm.

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Wake County Public School System

The Wake County school  board met Tuesday in its only July session, a meeting that drew supporters to the meeting room at school headquarters and opponents to a downtown rally against a chance to a community-based student assignment system, then to school headquarters on Wake Forest Road.

That policy was not on the agenda for either the board's 12:30 work session, called the Committee of the Whole, or its formal voting meeting that began at 3:15, about the same time Raleigh police were making arrests outside.

The board's meeting room was full for the formal meeting. The board has given out tickets and limited the number of people in the room since the assignment policy became a controversial issue several months ago.
7:52 p.m. -- On a quiet note as its last few listed speakers failed to come forward when called, the board adjourned in a quiet and quick vote at contrast with the arrests of speakers earlier and a number of disputed votes on policy issues.
7:25 p.m. -- The school board returned from a closed session on personnel or student issues and again began hearing from members of the public. It marked the third time speakers were invited to the microphone since the meeting opened at 3:15 p.m., with the first time ending with 19 arrests of protesters.

Many speakers seemed to have given up hope, and Chair Ron Margiotta at one point called nine names from the speakers list before someone was in the room.

Those who were present to speak told the board that diversity is important and that they believe the board's community-based assignment policy will create low-performing, high-poverty schools.

Andy Ewans of Cary told the board, "I can no longer reason with the school board" and that the community-assignment policy will cost taxpayers money. Failing non-diverse schools "will fail," and property values will drop as the system's reputation sinks, Ewans predicted. "Wake up!" he shouted to voters in general.

"Our children deserve a better way of doing business than I have seen today," Dr. Joy E. Weeber said when she spoke. She criticized the board's running of its meetings.

6:45 p.m. -- The board gave second and final approval to a policy change in the requirements for the superintendent it will hire. Among the changes is dropping any requirement for a background in education and a previous requirement that the board consider all internal candidates before looking outside the system.

Member Carolyn Morrison tried and failed to restore an abandoned policy provision that currently requires the board to consider all internal candidates before looking nationally. The revised policy the board approved once before -- policy changes require two readings and approvals -- did not contain that language.

"I don't see how this would not let our own internal candidates apply" with a practical advantage because they are known, member John Tedesco said, but he added, "We don't need to give them an intentional leg up."

The vote was 5-4 against Morrison's plan.

6:30 p.m. -- As seven Raleigh police officers lined one wall of its meeting room after earlier arrests, the board began consideration a second time of a policy change that would drop any requirement for an educational background for the school superintendent who will be hired after an ongoing search for someone to replace Del Burns, who quit in a policy dispute with the board about school assignment.

The board has voted once for the change.

Members Carolyn Morrison and Kevin Hill both asked for the motion to be tabled Tuesday until the board hears from a search firm that conducted meetings with several stakeholder groups and held two public sessions to hear what people hoped to see in a superintendent. That failed on a 5-4 vote.

6:15 p.m. -- The board voted 5-4 for a three-month suspension of its meeting policy through mid-November, but the move failed because suspensions take a two-thirds vote. The plan is to change its schedule to one voting meeting and one work session a month rather than two of each.

In a parliamentary move, Vice-Chair Debra Goldman then proposed simply changing the policy, not suspend it, which requires only a majority vote. In following its recent history on policy changes, the board voted 5-4 for the outright change.

Chages require two votes, so the matter will come up again in August for a second vote.

The same vote also suspended the board's standing committees in favor of a system in which one member will be a "liaison" for each of various issues and would bring those to the work sessions, called the Committee of the Whole.

Member Anne McLaurin said she objected because it would cut the amount of public-speaking time in half each month. Chair Ron Margiotta, who had raised the idea in a work session earlier in the day, said he would agree with a one-hour public comment period at each meeting and also would like to see board meetings moved to various locations around the county.

6:02 p.m. -- The board approved technical changes in its policy that requires contractors to conduct annual checks to make sure people they send onto school property are not registered sex offenders. The changes life that requirement for situations where no students are present, such as at schools closed for renovations.
5:50 p.m. -- As police outside the school board headquarters readied arrested protesters to be taken to jail, the school board resumed its meeting, and Chair Ron Margiotta began to call another 10 speakers. That group finished at about 5:50, and the board went on to other items on its agenda.

He initially called Carolyn Coleman, who was on the speakers list, but the crowd told him, "She's in jail. Have a nice day."

Several of the names called after the arrests got no response.

Judy Keener told the board she was proud of its work. Keener was one of the first people waiting outside school headquarters Tuesday morning for a ticket into the board meeting.

The Rev. Paul Anderson, who had persuaded the audience to agree to Margiotta's plan to have 10 more speakers, told the board that he hoped there could be inclusion in the schools. He said data showed what is likely to happen when diversity is dropped as a goal, and it would not be an improvement.

Bernard Irlbeck, who lives in unincorporated Wake County, told the board that he saw the effects of high-poverty schools when he was a teacher at Xavier University in New Orleans. Students were unprepared, he said, and he urged the district not to allow any high-poverty schools to develop.

The board, he urged, should make sure magnet schools are fully funded so there are slots for as many students as want to go to inner-city schools.

Benjamin Duncan of Apex told the board that "the community schools sound good, but ... we don't have integrated neighborhoods," and resegregated schools will reoccur under the board's policy change.

Full integration is necessary, Duncan said, and he told the board, "You'll never do it by going to a neighborhood school system that keeps them (students) apart."

5:10 p.m. -- Chair Ron Margiotta came back into the board's meeting room to speak with the remaining crowd. He said the board would hear 10 more speakers when members came back, then hear the remainder of the speakers list at the end of the meeting.

Rev. Paul Anderson told the crowd that seemed like "a fair compromise" and asked the audience to go back to its seats.

"Thank you. We needed a leader right now," one audience member said to Anderson as people calmed down and went back to sitting.

5 p.m. -- Police carried protesters from the Wake County Board of Education meeting Tuesday as others sang "We Shall Overcome" and chanted "Segregation Never."

It appeared for a few moments that board member Keith Sutton was going to be arrested when he was in the midst of the protesters at the speaker's podium. Raleigh police had Sutton's hands behind him and looked as if he would be handcuffed in the confusion. Shortly after, however, he was led from a side door after officers realized he was a board member, not a protester.

A protest went on for several minutes before Chair Ron Margiotta ordered Raleigh police to begin arresting people who had disrupted the board's public comment session about 45 minutes after it began.

4:45 p.m. -- The board opened its public comment session, scheduled for a half-hour, with two people shouting a demand for more than 30 minutes.

The board's attorney, Ann Majestic, read an opening statement noting that the board expects "civility and respect." Speakers were to get two minutes each, and about 70 people had signed up to speak. The board has sometimes stopped after 30 minutes and made remaining speakers wait until the end of other business, usually two to three hours later.

Members of the Republican party had called for conservative people to attend the meeting to support the board's five-member majority.

The first speaker, congressional candidate Bill Randall, praised the board. It would be bad, he said, to tell students that their local schools cannot educate them.

Donna Williams of Raleigh thanked the board "for your common-sense approach to solving problems." She also praised the board for budget cuts.

Jim Martin, a longtime opponent of the new assignment policy, criticized a proposal to have one board meeting a month as a step to "cutting public comment in half."

Speaker Jeff Morse said it was "nuts" that the board has had to spend $14,000 in recent months for extra security at meetings, and he praised the members "for ending forced busing." He also criticized protesters for provoking their arrests.

Lynn Edmunds of Raleigh and Chase Foster, also of Raleigh, criticized the board for several of its recent actions, including having four arrested protesters banned from school property.

Kathy Boos of Raleigh, a school parent, urged the board to look for an education professional in it search for a new superintendent, and she said she feared that the community-based assignment policy would result in some poor-quality schools.

As she spoke, board opponents used a technique reminiscent of the 1950s Beat Generation, snapping their fingers in support rather than applauding. Margiotta asked the audience several times to hold applause, but that was seldom honored.

Betty Ellerbee of Raleigh said the board had done exactly what it promised to do, and she told hecklers that they had been silent during last November's elections. Some in the audience hissed her, a sign of the significant divisions in the room.

 At the end of 30 minutes, Margiotta said the board would "go a little bit beyond" the half-hour allotted for comments.

Melonie Taylor, who said she was a retired teacher, told the board to "go for it" in policy changes and urged them to hire a superintendent "who knows where we've been and kinda knows where we're going" and who "won't get fired in the first year."

Rob Stephens told the board he had attended Forsyth County schools when that system dropped diversity, and schools became effectively segregated. "Make no mistake about it," Stephens said, that will happen in Wake.

 3:30 p.m. -- Board members Kevin Hill and Anne McLaurin congratulated Interim Superintendent Donna Hargens for being named one of the finalists in a superintendent search in New Hanover County.

Hargens has been running Wake schools since Superintendent Del Burns resigned in the spring in a dispute with the new board majority over a changed student-assignment policy. Wake is searching for a permanent superintendent. Hargens has not said if she has applied for her current job.

The board has been pushing a search firm it hired to look outside educational circles as well as among educators for candidates.

3:15 p.m. -- Chair Ron Margiotta opened the board's voting meeting with a statement about student assignment, saying the board wants "quality educational opportunities for all children by addressing the needs of all families." The goal is to overcome "lack of choice and stagnated student achievement." The new policy for community-based assignments will, he said, "increase trust."

"This board does not intend to create high-poverty or low-performing schools in the new zone assignments," Margiotta said. Opponents of the change have said those will occur and have raised the term resegregation in their protests.

Margiotta criticized "distractions" raised by others. His remarks came shortly after police arrested state NAACP President Rev. William Barber and Nancy Ellen Petty, a pastor at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, outside the school headquarters where the board was meeting. Barber had been banned from school property after an arrest at a June board meeting.

2:55 p.m. -- The board talked about a change to the policy for naming schools. It has not allowed naming a school for a person, saying they should be named for geographic features or other reasons. The group had to ask why people were ruled out, and Chair Ron Margiotta said it was because of some previous disputes.

Member Keith Sutton suggested a change would open the way for similar disputes. "Why are we even bothering?" he asked. member Carolyn Morrison said a former chairman told her the changes were made to "get the politics out of the board" in naming schools.

Member John Tedesco said he would like the board to have the option for future schools. Sutton proposed dropping the amendment altogether. It was not on the agenda for the day's formal meeting, Margiotta said. Sutton could not get four backers to drop the issue permanently, however.

2:45 p.m. -- The board quickly went through policy issues involving what contractors working on school property have to assure that none of their employees is a registered sex offender and which do not, such as crews working on schools closed for renovations, where there are no students.

Members also looked over a proposal to change who can distribute published materials in schools, such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Attorney Ann Majestic suggested that staff bring the board new language to be legally correct.

2:30 p.m. -- The board took up proposed changes in the job description of the next superintendent, including new language that says the job includes "development and maintenance of a positive educational program designed to meet the needs of the community to carry out the policies of the board."

Former Superintendent Del Burns resigned earlier this year in a dispute with the board over assignment policy that changed in a series of 5-4 votes to discontinue socio-economic diversity as a criterion and to emphasize community cohesion.

The board would make the superintendent check with the board on any Central Office staff reorganization and to get board approval if any more money is required by the changes.

Another section would say the superintendent is supposed to keep the board and the public informed about "new and effective" educational practices "and trends." Current language refers to "modern" practices and says nothing about trends.

An addition would require a "continuous evaluation of the progress and the needs of students, schools and departments.

The changes were hashed out in Policy Committee meetings run by Chair Debra Goldman, who also chairs the Superintendent Search Committee. She said she also had more changes to propose, prompting an impromptu "Oh boy" from Chair Ron Margiotta.

Some members raised questions about qualifications for a superintendent, including educational experience. Goldman and Margiotta told them that was a different policy and was not being discussed.

The members decided to vote on changes proposed in writing in a first reading (two are needed for policy changes) with more changes expected before an August second vote. Whether those will require starting over is not clear yet, Ann Majestic, the board's attorney, told the members.

Because the board is searching for a superintendent now, the Tuesday version is, Margiotta said, "a rush job" to accommodate time.

2:00 p.m. -- Don Haydon, chief facilities and operations officer for the school system, gave the board a presentation on expected crowding in the 2013-14 school year and asked members to consider speeding up spending for planning on new schools.

Predicting population is a "squishy science," Haydon said, but he projected that by 2013-14, there will be about 160,000 students in the system. It now has about 143,000, he said.

Including schools that are being planned or built now, the system will have have more students than seats in 2012 under the highest projections and 2013-14 even under more conservative projections, Haydon said. Both of those assume that every seat in every school is filled, leaving no room for change during the school year.

Staff projections show more than 100 percent demand for elementary seats in six of nine geographic areas in the county, according to a graph Haydon showed to the board. The crowded regions are in northern and western Wake County, a map showed.

For middle schools, two of the nine areas would be be over capacity. For high schools, it is again six of nine, Haydon showed.

Some money has been saved in current and recent projects, Haydon said, but not enough to build a high school.

Possible solutions include new elementary schools by 2013, another small middle school and using a new  "elementary" school as a ninth-grade center to reduce high school crowding.

Haydon said that the recession will probably continue to provide lower-than-expected constructions costs for current work, "but we're kind of running out of projects to save on."

The staff, Haydon said, will ask the board to shift some funds in its capital budget to push up design work for two elementary schools and one middle school after fall enrollment numbers are in. Facilities Committee Chair Chris Malone said his panel had suggested a wider discussion of the idea, but had not voted for or against it.

Member Debra Goldman said the board should wait for upcoming 2010 Census data and should focus on existing needs before planning for new schools. She emphasized that Cary High School, in her district, needs repair work and is a "heinously, egregiously overcrowded area."

Staff told an annoyed Goldman that all funded renovation work at Cary High has been done and that further work was always planned to be under a future bond issue for capital programs.

"One thing I'd ask you all to keep in mind is that we're going to need a new bond program sometime," Haydon said. His plan would use savings on projects to do planning and design before then, he said.

1:30 p.m. -- Staff asked the board to cap enrollment at Cedar Fork Elementary School in Morrisville because of overcrowding, and board members indicated they will support the plan.

The school should have 747 students with trailer classrooms and has squeezed in 843 under a cap for the last two years. Lunches begin at 10:20 a.m.

At times, Assistant Superintendent Christina Lighthall told the board that at times, it is almost impossible to move in the halls near the cafeteria.

Any new students who move into in the Cedar Creek assignment "node" would be assigned to what administrators called a "capped out" alternative school. Cobb suggested either Reedy Creek or Weatherstone as the school to which students would be guaranteed transportation, though she said buses to other schools might be possible.

Two schools might be established because of ease of travel, Cobb said, but only one alternative school would be offered to each student. Parents also could ask to have their children go to a year-round school and would get transportation for that, Cobb said.

Member Debra Goldman said that sending students to Reedy Creek Elementary would move them even farther from their homes than current assignments to Weatherstone. Goldman is one of the board's five-member majority that has pushed through a change over the next few years to a community-based assignment plan.


1:10 p.m. -- Chairman Ron Margiotta proposed a temporary plan for one board meeting a month rather than the current two. He also suggested abolishing all standing committees and having one member for each of several topic areas bring business to the board.

After discussion, an informal "thumbs-up" poll suggested Margiotta had the votes to pass the plan for a three-month trial period..

He also suggested having one late meeting a month to acknowledge student achievements.

Member Anne McLaurin, one of a consistent losing alliance in a series of 5-4 votes on policy issues this year, asked how a member who did not have reporting duties get items before the board. Margiotta said any member could put items on the board's agenda for discussion. He also said members could take their questions to the staff on any items outside the current committee-meeting structure.

"I don't have all the answers, the suggestion being, let's try it," Margiotta said in asking for a three-month trial.

The plan would be for a single work session a month, too, Margiotta said.

The board's policy is to meet on the first and third Tuesdays of each month, with a work session before each formal meeting. Committees meet on other days, usually during the day's.

Next month, Margiotta said, the board is scheduled to have a work session on the 2010-11 budget on Aug. 3 and a voting meeting on a final budget on Aug. 10.

Ad-hoc committees -- those not spelled out in board policy -- would remain in place, Margiotta said. Those include Community Relations and a committee focusing on socio-economically disadvantaged students. A third is searching for a new school superintendent.

The chairman said part of his reasoning was that the committee structure does not seem to work, with most, if not all, board members attending committee meetings.

Member Kevin Hill, previous board chair and another member of the four-member minority in the controversial votes, said he wondered how members could stay up to speed on issues if the committee sessions were abolished.

He had heard nothing of Margiotta's idea until the meeting opened Tuesday, he said. He said he would like more than eight minutes to consider it.

Member Keith Sutton, a third member of the voting bloc with Hill and McLaurin,  asked whether the change would pose a problem for staff members because the board would act on issues only once each month. Policy issues have to be voted on twice, which would extend any change to a minimum of two months.

Making Margiotta's changes would require the board to vote later Tuesday at its formal meeting to suspend its policies on when it meets and what committees it has. Margiotta asked for action Tuesday. Sutton asked for a delay to think about the idea.

Board vice-chair and Policy Committee Chair Debra Goldman backed Margiotta's plan, saying several policy issues handled in her committee should be discussed by the whole board. She also said she could learn about other issues in depth at full-board work sessions without having to attend other committee's meetings.

"I get the impression people are concerned that something's being taken away," Margiotta said. "That was not the intent." He spoke of organizations in which committee votes determined whether a full board would act on something. "That would never work here. It's different times," he said.

However, because most items go to a committee, a work session and then a formal meeting, committee meetings take time without narrowing the board's agenda, Margiotta said.

12:36 p.m. -- Board Chairman Ron Margiotta convened the work session, which is being televised to an audience watching on monitors in the board meeting room.



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