Local Politics

Outgoing members say challenges await new Wake school board

Posted November 29, 2009 6:40 p.m. EST
Updated December 1, 2009 6:12 p.m. EST

— Outgoing Wake County school board members say that newly-elected members could apply lessons learned by their predecessors as they strive to keep campaign promises, including support for neighborhood schools.

During the eight years Patti Head served as the board's chair and vice-chair, the Wake County Public School System grew by more than 40,000 students and 37 schools.

No decision prompted more backlash than student assignment, she said.

"Particularly, what I found over eight years is you can't make everyone happy, that you do the very best you can in putting in balance, resources both financial and human resources,” Head said.

The newly-elected members – Debra Goldman, Chris Malone, Deborah Prickett and John Tedesco – gained endorsements from community groups, including WakeCARES and the Wake Schools Community Alliance, for their willingness to change student assignment policies in favor of neighborhood schools.

The school system's policy is to have no more than 40 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches at any school. Students are reassigned each year to maintain that level of socioeconomic diversity, as well as to fill new schools and relieve overcrowding.

Outgoing board member Eleanor Goettee, who supports the diversity policy, said most recent reassignments have been driven by growth, not diversity. Growth will also make the new school board members' promise of neighborhood schools hard to fulfill, she said.

"It's impossible in some of these really dense neighborhoods for all those children to go to the 'neighborhood school,'" Goettee said. "In fact, the new board is going to have a difficult time determining how you define a neighborhood school."

In the election, support for the student assignment policies came from the North Carolina Association of Educators and the Friends of Diversity, a group newly formed by local political and business leaders that made a last-ditch campaign. Supporters argued that reversing current policies would hurt the district's future, and Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP chapter, said it would essentially re-segregate schools.

"I do not want us to revert to segregated schools, to schools of high poverty,” Goettee said.

Both Head and Goettee said they decided to not seek re-election so they could spend more time with family and pursue other interests. They offered advice for new school members, who will be sworn in Tuesday.

Goettee cautioned that making tough decisions will take a toll.

"Every decision has impact and consequence for so many children, so the seriousness of which we had to address everything is just stressful, to be honest," she said.

Head said the new members should proceed with thoughtfulness and consideration.

"Study the issues, and listen to both those voices that are very loud but also those that are softer-spoken voices, and try to balance the issues,” she said.