Education

Wake school board newcomers push agenda with consistent 5-4 victories

Posted July 21, 2010 9:08 a.m. EDT
Updated July 22, 2010 9:07 a.m. EDT

— A school board meeting that got the most attention for protests, angry comments from the public and the arrests of 19 people provided a glimpse into the deep 5-4 division on the Wake County Board of Education and the determination of the majority to push through its approach to running the state’s largest school district.

Chairman Ron Margiotta, who had been a lone conservative on the school board before last November’s elections and who now is the consistent fifth vote for changes in tie after tie between four incumbent and four new members, on Tuesday proposed changing the board’s meeting schedule.

School board policy requires two public meetings a month, usually on the first and third Tuesdays. The chairman suggested one.

“Let’s give it a try,” Margiotta said in a pre-meeting work session.

He got an informal “thumbs-up” and the idea of suspending the policy and changing the schedule for about four months went onto the regular meeting agenda along with a related idea of abolishing the board’s standing committees and keeping only ad-hoc, or issue-specific, ones such as the Superintendent Search Committee and the Student Assignment Committee that is charged with coming up with a community-based plan for the system’s 140,000 students.

The power move came when the board got to vote on the proposal in the public meeting.

It takes a two-thirds vote (six votes) to suspend board policies. It takes a simple majority vote at each of two meetings to change a policy.

After Vice Chair Debra Goldman moved to suspend the policy and test the one-meeting-a-month plan, the four-member minority – Keith Sutton, Anne McLaurin, former chair Kevin Hill and Carolyn Morrison expressed their doubts about how the board could get the same work done with fewer meetings. The plan stalled. It got the now-usual 5-4 approval, but not the six votes needed to suspend the rule, though Goldman said it had enough support in the work session.

Within seconds, Goldman said, “OK, then I move to change the policy,” using the same language as the suspension proposal – one work session per month and one formal, voting meeting. If she prevailed, the policy would be changed permanently, or at least until it was changed again some time in the future.

The debate resumed, including objections from McLaurin that cutting out one meeting a month would also cut in half the time the public is allowed to address the members, currently slated for a half-hour per meeting, though that is sometimes extended, as it had been Tuesday before the scene broke down into shouting, chanting, singing and handcuffs.

There was some talk of putting an hour of public comment on the agenda for each single monthly meeting, but then the majority members closed ranks in the same way they did to change the student assignment policy, forcing the resignation of Superintendent Del Burns in the process, and to change the qualifications for hiring his replacement.

The vote was 4-4. Margiotta broke the tie, and the policy change was half-way to becoming permanent.

School board members serve four-year terms. The change agents elected last year – Goldman, John Tedesco, Deborah Prickett and Chris Malone – are assured of a role until 2014 if they want it. Margiotta’s term expires next year, as do those of Sutton, Hill, McLaurin and Morrison.

The 5-4 divide over controversial issues has become familiar to board observers. Sometimes there are several 5-4 votes on a given issue as the four minority members try to amend language and are voted down time and again before the original action passes.

“And I’ll break the tie and vote yes” from Margiotta seems likely to be seen in meeting minutes for some time to come.