Education
5:00 am
Wed December 1, 2010

A Year Of Conflict In Wake Schools

A year ago today a new School Board was sworn-in in Wake County. The new members promised to radically alter the way students were assigned to schools. But nobody expected what was to come over the next twelve months. Dave DeWitt has this retrospective of a tumultuous year for Wake County Schools.

A year ago today a new School Board was sworn-in in Wake County. The four new members represented a new majority, elected by an average margin of 68%. They promised to radically alter the way students were assigned to schools. But nobody expected what was to come over the next twelve months.

One year ago today, Chris Malone was all-smiles. He had just been sworn in as a Wake County School Board member after winning election by a 2-to-1 margin. As he spoke, he could see his opponents sitting in large numbers before him. But his first words were for his supporters, and he also offered a prediction:

" I want you to know we heard your calls for reform. You carried the day and thank you. The next four years are going to be what they say, interesting times."

If the first of those four years is any indication, “interesting” may not be a strong enough word. Malone and his newly-elected colleagues Deborah Prickett, Debra Goldman, and John Tedesco wasted no time. At that first meeting they joined Ron Margiotta in removing the chair and offering a resolution to immediately end the policy of assigning some students to balance socio-economic diversity at schools.

It was a power play that quickly unleashed partisan anger and drew battle lines. Charlotte Turpin is a former Wake County School teacher. Her comments that night were just a hint at what was to come:

"Your challenge is to do what is right and what is best for every child no matter their economic background. No matter the color of their skin. No matter if they walk to school or ride the bus."

In the next weeks and months, Superintendent Del Burns resigned, the NAACP mobilized, and meetings turned into 10-hour shouting marathons. In March, the Board was finally set to end the diversity policy officially. It was a vote that drew national media attention.

The media circus and hundreds of chanting protestors didn’t deter the five-member majority. They passed the resolution and began drawing up a new student assignment plan based on proximity.

Opposition intensified. In June, three people were arrested at a meeting, including William Barber, the head of the state NAACP. It all culminated on a brutally hot mid-July day when thousands took to the streets in downtown Raleigh.

Later, Barber was again arrested outside the school board meeting. And a few hours after that, the meeting inside predictably exploded in a melee of protestors and police.

All that public outcry made for good TV and radio, but it was the legal maneuvering going on behind the scenes that is having the lasting impact. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is investigating a Title IV complaint filed against Wake Schools by the NAACP and the accrediting agency AdvancED initiated a rare review of the district’s policies.

The Board majority finally cracked last month. Debra Goldman decided to halt Tedesco’s committee to draw up a new student assignment plan when she disagreed with provisions regarding base assignment.

One year later, that puts the School Board back to square one. Except now they face problems that are more significant than anything they have addressed – or created - since last December:

"The Board quite frankly is too consumed with this assignment area. What we’re looking at is the potential of setting education back years."

John Dornan is the president of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, an education think tank. He says public schools could lose a billion dollars in funding this year - with Wake County losing more than $100 million. That could translate into hundreds of teachers being laid-off in the state’s largest school system:

"And when you cut teachers people think of it in terms of jobs, think of it in terms of education. One of two things will happen, either class sizes will get larger across the board or programs get eliminated."

The budget realities will force the School Board to sit down in the coming months and make very difficult decisions - the kind that will affect every principal, teacher, parent, and student.

Those decisions will make the coming year “interesting” to say the least.