School board ends diversity policy – and has its first real public debate on the issue

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Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting met the promise of chaos set in previous weeks. Diversity supporters made their final stand against the new board majority’s community based assignment policy which eventually passed in a 5-4 vote.

The vote did not take place before board members engaged in their first sustained public debate on the new directive, publicly ratified (again in a 5-4 vote) the decision to place superintendent Del Burns on administrative leave, and three people were arrested.

During public comment the board heard impassioned pleas from attorneys, professors and researchers to slow or halt the vote to end diversity.

Mark Dorosin, an attorney at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Civil Rights, told majority members they “violated open meeting laws,” by making “last minute changes that curtail democracy.” He also cited the board’s last minute decision to sequester members of the public (who came in the morning in order to get a ticket) inside the board of education building until the meeting began at 3.

Dorosin also noted that the media can request a change of venue to a larger facility and that the News & Observer and WRAL had done so, but that their request had been denied.

Halfway through the fiery public comment period, the second floor of the Wake County Schools building began to rumble. Upwards of 40 students outside the meeting room stomped the floor in time to their chant of “Shut it down! No segregation in our town!”

Rev. William Barber, chair of the North Carolina NAACP, talks to protesters at Tuesday’s school board meeting. Photo by Will Huntsberry.

The chanting crowd caused such disruption that security personnel shut the door to the meeting room, police officers cordoned off the students in the hallway, and ultimately a ten minute recess was called.

Cries of “why won’t you talk to us?” were directed toward board chair Ron Margiotta, who called protesters “animals” at the last board meeting, when, during the recess, he walked into the corridor and attempted to quiet the crowd.

Dante Strobino, 29, a local activist, was dropped to his knees by Raleigh police officers when, after Margiotta’s departure from the corridor, Strobino resumed leading the crowd in chants. Strobino was arrested for second degree trespassing.

Police arrested local activist Dante Strobino. Photo by Will Huntsberry.

As police officers lead Strobino out in handcuffs Dr. William Barber, president of N.C. NAACP, advised protesters who “made the choice to stay” to not “resist the police officers when you are taken.”

Duncan Hardee, 22 of Asheville, and Rakhee Vasthali, 23 of Fayetteville, were also arrested on the charge of resisting, delaying or obstructing a police officer.

The board minority had a few tricks up its sleeve when the time came for the board to hold it final vote on directives for community based assignments.

A string of motions to amend the resolution were suggested and seconded by minority members from 6:15 pm to just after 7:45 when the vote finally took place.

Dr. Anne McLaurin suggested an amendment, to which she added, “I think this is one we can agree on.” The amendment was a line taken directly from the NC constitution which said “a plan that provides all students at all schools with an equal opportunity to a sound, basic education.” It passed unanimously.

Many diversity supporters recognize that Wake County has some high poverty schools under the current diversity policy, but they maintain that the community based assignment plan will create “super-high poverty” schools, especially within the Beltline, which will experience huge disparities in educational quality.

Board members Keith Sutton, a diversity policy supporter, and John Tedesco, author and public figurehead of the new directive, held sustained debate on the matter for the first time within the board.

Board member John Tedesco voted to end the diversity policy. Photo by Will Huntsberry.

Tedesco accused Sutton of “continuing to say that children of poverty are different than other children.” Sutton denied the claim and went on to say that if children of poverty do not require extra resources “Why is there any need for organizations like Big Brother Big Sister?” which provide assistance and mentoring to underprivileged youth.

Tedesco said that organizations like Big Brother Big Sister, of which he is the vice president, are voluntary organizations and “the difference is” that assisting socio-economically disadvantaged students should not be a “public mandate.”

He went on to say that while some people support the diversity policy because of pure motives, “some people are misusing the current assignment plan.” He, along with board members Prickett and Goldman, also asserted that some schools are already out-of-balance “based on the current policy,” which states that no school should have more than 40 percent of its pupils receiving free or reduced lunch.

Board member McLaurin suggested that these were reasons to “fix the current policy” not to end it.

Disgruntled cries and shouts rose up from the heavily weighted pro-diversity crowd each time a member of the minority’s amendment was voted down, but after the vote took place diversity supporters were resigned as they slowly shuffled out of the meeting room.

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