Wake County Schools

Turnout tepid at Wake polls despite hot races

Tuesday could end with a shift in power for the governing board of the state's largest school district as voters turn out to the polls to either affirm or reject its decisions over the past two years.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Wake County voters headed to the polls Tuesday to weigh in on a number of local races, including several bids for the Wake County Board of Education, housing and transportation bonds in Raleigh and mayoral and council races in both Raleigh and Cary.

But the school board races are expected to be some of the most closely watched contests.

The election could end Tuesday night with a shift in power for the governing board of the state's largest school district, as voters either affirm or reject some of its most controversial decisions over the past two years.

Despite record-setting early voting for an off-year election – more than 7,200 ballots had been cast by Saturday, which was triple the number of 2009 – traffic in the 150 Wake County polling places was fairly routine Tuesday morning, elections officials said.

Morning rains might be keeping turnout down, officials said.

Fourteen candidates are vying for five of the nine seats on what's supposed to be a nonpartisan school board, which has been sharply divided since 2009, when a Republican-backed majority was voted into office and subsequently overturned a number of longstanding school district policies, including how students are assigned to schools.

For years, the district bused students as a way to help achieve socio-economic diversity in all schools, but the board eliminated the practice, paving the way for a new policy aimed at giving parents choices for their children's education while keeping students closer to their homes.

That issue alone thrust the school board into the local and national spotlights.

Parents, students and educators – both those who were happy and upset about the policy change – packed the school board meeting room for months for a chance to tell district leaders what they thought on the matter.

The move also prompted name-calling and accusations of racism from the community, as well as protests from and arrests of those fearing that the change would segregate schools. It led to federal investigators probing a civil rights complaint that poor students could be denied their right to a fair, equal education if the policy were to be implemented.

Supporters of the new assignment policy, which goes into effect beginning with the 2012-13 school year, say it will improve student achievement and allow parents to be more involved in their children’s education.

They believe a lot of good work has been accomplished but that more still needs to be done.

“There are some new candidates who would like to take us back to the old policies,” said Kathleen Brennan, director of WakeCARES, a community group that supports neighborhood schools and lobbied to get the conservative-backed board members elected in 2009. “I know the people of Wake County do not want to go back to a time where there were massive reassignments and they had very little say.”

Incumbent Ron Margiotta has led the Republican bloc responsible for the controversial changes, while incumbents Keith Sutton and Kevin Hill have been among the minority on the board, which splits 5-4 on most policy votes – including the student assignment issue.

The majority would need to win at least one more seat to maintain its power. Supporters of the old student assignment plan and the board minority are hopeful that power changes Tuesday night.

“(This) is huge,” said Lettice Rhodes, with the group Great Schools in Wake. “The school board majority that came in two years ago has hijacked our nationally recognized school system. This is our chance to make some changes and try to redirect."

The races for the board – usually quiet and low-profile – have been feverishly contested over the past couple of months, with thousands of dollars being poured into local campaigns.

According to campaign finance records filed last week, the 14 candidates raised at least $316,000 for the contest – money spent on advertising, consultants and other get-out-the-vote efforts.

Both the Republican and Democratic parties have also been heavily involved in the process, and political opponents and groups claiming to be unaffiliated with the candidates have launched nasty personal attacks.

One group, for example, claimed "tea party extremism" by one candidate, while another group accused Democratic front-runners of "liberal indoctrination."

The candidates, meanwhile, insist they want to put aside the partisan politics that have plagued the school board the past two years and do only what's best for the district's growing population of more than 143,000 students.

Margiotta, who represents southern Wake County, faces Susan Evans for the District 8 race. Hill, who represents north Raleigh, faces off against Heather Losurdo, Jennifer Mansfield and Eric Squires in the District 3 race. And Sutton, who was appointed in 2009 to fill a vacant seat in District 4 in east Raleigh, faces his first election against Venita Peyton.

Jim Martin and Cynthia Matson are running in south-central Raleigh for the District 5 seat currently held by Dr. Anne McLaurin. McLaurin said in June that she was not going to run again. Also not running is Carolyn Morrison, who holds the District 6 central Raleigh school board seat. There are four candidates in that race: Christine Kushner, George Morgan, Mary Ann Weathers and Donna Williams.

Although the Wake school board races may be attracting the voters, a number of other races could mean significant changes in local government.

Charles Meeker is not seeking a sixth term as Raleigh's mayor, meaning one of three candidates – Nancy McFarlane, Billie Redmond and Dr. Randall Williams – running for his post will become the new mayor. Voters in the Capital City must also fill seven City Council seats and approve or reject issuing $40 million in bonds for transportation improvement projects and $16 million to build and renovate affordable housing.

In Cary, where three Town Council seats are open, Mayor Harold Weinbrecht is running against Michelle Muir. Voters in Durham and Cumberland counties will vote in primary elections for mayor and local council seats.


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