Former Wake schools chair calls for punishment of protesters
Posted December 18, 2011 10:18 p.m. EST
Updated December 19, 2011 6:34 p.m. EST
Apex, N.C. — Former Wake County Board of Education Chairman Ron Margiotta says four people arrested in a protest at a school board meeting last year need to be punished.
Margiotta, who held the District 8 seat for eight years before losing his re-election bid in October, said demonstrators used "extreme and intimidating tactics" that "deliberately created chaos and fear" in a letter sent to WRAL News Sunday.
North Carolina NAACP President Rev. William Barber, Duke professor Timothy Tyson and two other protesters were arrested in June 2010 for staging a sit-in at a board meeting to express opposition to the board's decision to stop busing students to achieve socioeconomic diversity across all district schools.
Margiotta wrote the letter in response to a Dec. 10 editorial in a local newspaper that praised Tyson's use of the principle of civil disobedience and his willingness to accept the consequences of the trespassing charges he faces as a result of his arrest.
Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby has expressed his intention to pursue mediation in the cases against the protesters, which Margiotta called "a simple slap on the wrist."
"(Their actions) were not simple acts of civil disobedience or disruption. These individuals shut down the public's business, refused to leave the podium, used offensive language and ultimately crossed security barriers to physically take over the seats of the elected school board members," he wrote.
"The safety of the board, as well as those in the audience, was threatened."
In an interview Monday, he said the protesters crossed the line of civil disobedience and need to be punished.
"You just can't let it get out of hand, or we have anarchy," he said. "I certainly don't want to see anyone go to jail for this offense. That doesn't seem to make sense. However, I would like to see them found guilty."
Tyson called Margiotta's letter a "grumpy, evasive and ideologically driven" tirade.
He said he joined the other protesters in an act of civil disobedience because he felt that the changes in student assignment at Wake County schools could result in high-poverty schools and re-segregation.
"We felt that protecting North Carolina's public schools was an urgent moral issue," he said.
He also took issue with Margiotta's characterization of the June sit-in.
"We sang hymns and prayed. Unless prayer offends you, there was no 'offensive language,'" he said. "No one, not even Mr. Margiotta, was afraid of us."
Ultimately, Tyson said he will accept any judgment the court makes.
"We never asked any favors of the court," he said. "We certainly never asked anything of Ron Margiotta, who has no authority in this matter."
Margiotta said he believes the rhetoric fueled by the protests overshadowed the positive work the board did in creating a new student assignment plan and preserving teaching jobs during a tough budget year. That likely cost him his seat in the election and created another shift in the balance of power on the school board.
"The public supported our positions, but they did not appreciate the turmoil. It didn't matter who was creating it," he said.
Discussions among the new majority prior to taking their seats in 2009 and making big changes on their first day in office played into that, he said.
"We might have done things differently. Processes is what you could object to – processes that we used," he said.
Still, Margiotta said he doesn't regret the board's actions, especially in restructuring student assignment.
"As much as I say it would have been an improvement to do things differently, I don't think the job would have ever happened," he said.
He said he doesn't plan to seek another elected office but would remain active in education issues.