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Battle wages over school diversity policy on election eve

A group calling itself "The Friends of Diversity" said Monday that student assignment policies based on socioeconomic diversity are the "bedrock" of success in Wake County public schools.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — A day before voters decide among candidates for four seats on the Wake County Board of Education, a group of community leaders spoke in support of the school system's socioeconomic diversity policies.

School board member Keith Sutton introduced a group calling itself "The Friends of Diversity" at a Monday morning news conference. Among those at in attendance were Knightdale Mayor Russell Killen, Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker, Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce President Harvey Schmitt, developer Smedes York and Jim Goodmon, president and chief executive of Capitol Broadcasting Co., the parent company of WRAL.

The school district's socioeconomic policies have become a top issue in the elections to be held Tuesday. Several community groups, such as WakeCARES and the Wake Schools Community Alliance, said they are endorsing candidates who say they are willing to change some of the school system's policies, including its diversity and student assignment policies.

"We need to come together, and we need to push. Push for the education that our children deserve, but the basis for that, I know and I believe, is in diversity," Killen said. "To abandon our diversity policy now after we've had so much success just doesn't make sense to me. We have a proven model.

"Yes, there are things that can be improved. Yes, there are things that need to be done," he said. "But diversity is the bedrock on which the rest of those policies sit. We need healthy schools in order to educate our children."

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

Diversity supporters said they fear area schools will become segregated if the policy is abandoned.

"If you have all low-income kids in a school, they have no power. They have no voice," Goodmon said. "We know exactly what will happen to those schools."

The North Carolina Association of Educators, which represents about 5,000 school district employees, supports candidates who favor the assignment policy and who also focus on other issues, such as retaining quality teachers and maintaining state-of-the-art facilities.

"The critics of the school system as it is today do not want segregation of our schools. We do not want to sweep away the diversity  policy. We do not want schools of have and have-not," said Allison Backhouse of the Wake Schools Community Alliance. "We want stability for our children. We want every child to be educated, and we want education to become the priority.

"Currently, diversity trumps education in Wake County, and the test scores show that."

About 63 percent of the 156 public schools in Wake County made adequate yearly progress in 2008-09 under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. That compares with 19 percent the previous year and 40 percent in 2006-07.

Yet, an analysis by Cary-based software developer SAS Institute shows that area schools with more low-income students do a poor job of helping those students make academic progress.

SAS developed the Education Value-Added Assessment System software program for North Carolina schools to determine how effective a schooling experience is. A report prepared in March says disparities in student achievement are more marked in Wake County than in other North Carolina school districts.

"As students move across grades, they tend to lose ground academically so that fewer students are projected to be proficient in the middle grades than in the earlier ones," the report states.

Bill Randall of the Wake Schools Community Alliance said the report shows district administrators aren't working to help the low-income students they claim to help through the diversity policy.

"Any time you broad-brush people and say, 'They don't have a chance unless we bureaucrats do things to stack the deck in our favor,' it is insulting," Randall said.

There are 12 candidates running for four seats on the nine-member school board.

WakeCARES and the Wake Schools Community Alliance have endorsed Chris Malone for the District 1 seat, John Tedesco in District 2, Deborah Prickett in District 7 and Debra Goldman in District 9.

The NCAE has endorsed Rita Rakestraw in District 1, Horace Tart in District 2, Karen Simon in District 7 and Lois Nixon in District 9.

Tart is the only incumbent school board member on the ballot this fall. District 1 board member Lori Millberg, District 7 member Patti Head and District 9 member Eleanor Goettee have chosen not to run for re-election.

A Wake County man filed a complaint Monday against the Wake Schools Community Alliance with the State Board of Elections, alleging the group has violated campaign finance laws.

Perry Woods contends that the group has contributed more than the $4,000 limit to the candidates it supports and said it distributed fliers urging people to vote for the candidates.

“We’ve done nothing to violate campaign finance laws," Joe Ciulla of Wake Schools Community Alliance said. "This is the second complaint Mr. Perry has filed against our group. In the first complaint, the Board of Elections ruled that we were guilty of no wrongdoing. Frankly, I think Mr. Woods is very worried about his campaign, and I think at this point in time he is looking for anything he can find to discredit our group.”