Local Politics

Voters call for end to Wake schools diversity policy

Posted October 6, 2009 7:19 p.m. EDT
Updated October 7, 2009 9:49 a.m. EDT

Wake County Public School System

— Wake County voters gave a thumbs-down Tuesday to assigning local students based on socioeconomic factors by electing candidates to the Board of Education who oppose the controversial policy.

Chris Malone won the District 1 seat on the school board, while Deborah Pickett won in District 7 and Debra Goldman took District 9.

John Tedesco was leading in the five-person race in District 2, with incumbent Horace Tart a distant third. But Tedesco lacked the majority of votes that would preclude a runoff next month.

Cathy Truitt, who was running second to Tedesco, said late Tuesday she was considering her options as to whether to force a Nov. 3 runoff.

The three winning candidates and Tedesco were endorsed by community groups like WakeCARES and the Wake Schools Community Alliance because they said they were willing to change the district's student assignment policies to favor neighborhood schools.

The district aims to have no more than 40 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches at any school. Students are assigned every year to maintain that level of socioeconomic diversity, as well as to fill new schools and relieve overcrowding.

The traditionally nonpartisan school board elections became a heated referendum on the district's assignment policy in recent weeks, with the topic dominating candidate forums.

The North Carolina Association of Educators backed candidates who favored the existing student assignment policy and who focused on other issues, such as retaining quality teachers and maintaining state-of-the-art facilities.

Also, a group calling itself Friends of Diversity that includes local political and business leaders made a last-ditch effort Monday to uphold current policies by saying reversing them would hurt the district's future.

Together with school board member Ron Margiotta, four new board members opposed to the diversity policy would give the neighborhood schools position a majority on the nine-person board.

"I'm feeling like the parents finally have a say now," Prickett said as she celebrated her victory with supporters. "There is just way too much reassignment, and parents are just tired of their children being moved from school to school. They need some stability."

She said she entered the race because she was upset about her own child's reassignment. Her son is scheduled to switch high schools before he graduates.

School board member Keith Sutton, who supports the diversity policy, said he was disappointed with Tuesday's results.

"My heart is with the kids in the Wake County school system, and (I'm) hoping we can preserve as much as we can in terms of the policies that we do have in place and still maintain diversity," Sutton said.

He said neighborhood school proponents did a better job at mobilizing voters than supporters of the existing policy.

Former school board member Beverley Clark said most reassignments in recent years have been growth-related, not to balance diversity. She said the elections could bring major disruptions to the school system.

"We know what folks ran against, but we don't know what they ran for," Clark said. "I hope they're running for student achievement. I hope that's their No. 1 goal. If it is, they will see that keeping schools strong and vibrant is important to keeping quality teachers in all of our classrooms across the county."

Tart was the only incumbent running for re-election this fall. District 1 board member Lori Millberg, District 7 member Patti Head and District 9 member Eleanor Goettee decided to step down.