The election is months away, but the field of Democratic challengers for the Wake County Board of Education is nearly complete, lacking only an opponent for Board Chair Ron Margiotta’s seat in District 8.
Meanwhile, Republicans are still in recruitment mode for Districts 4, 5 and 6. Heather Losurdo stepped up two months ago in an attempt to wrest District 3 from Democrat Kevin Hill.
The Democrats, who are all supporters of the abolished socioeconomic diversity component to student assignment, say this election is about moving forward, not looking back.
But even as Superintendent Tony Tata works to create a new student assignment policy, student assignment remains the largest touchstone for many voters since the board’s battle lines were drawn around it last year.
In an echo of Tata’s new student assignment plan proposals, all candidates have made “student achievement” their mantra. Everyone wants to set high expectations for all students, but stubborn inequities persist.
Perhaps the board’s biggest task will be to close the achievement gap among the district’s racial and ethnic minority students, which now comprise 50.5 percent of the student population in a county that is less than 40 percent non-white, non-Hispanic. Black and Hispanic students as demographic groups consistently perform below the level of their white counterparts.
Official filing for school board elections begins July 25.
A race that already promised to be tight now seems tighter after redistricting dropped the majority of registered Democrats in District 3 from more than 1,000 to just 36. In the Republicans’ play to increase their majority on the board, District 3 seems the most likely prospect.
The district’s more than 19,000 unaffiliated voters will be key in this race.
As the Record reported last month, Hill and Losurdo differ on many issues, from charter schools (Hill against, Losurdo for) and merit pay (Hill against, Losurdo for), to the old socioeconomic diversity component and student assignment (Hill for, Losurdo against).
Democrat Keith Sutton is running for re-election. Any Republican challenger will have an uphill slog in this minority-heavy, mostly Democratic district. Even if every independent voter in the district sided with Republicans, Democrats would still outnumber the other side by more than 2-to-1.
Unlike some other Democratic contenders, Sutton is interested in exploring how charter schools, particularly single-gender schools for black males, can help minority students succeed. He cites Chicago’s Urban Prep Academies as a model, where for two years 100 percent of graduating seniors have been accepted into four-year colleges and universities.
Sutton is the only board member from a racial minority group.
Democrat Jim Martin has declared his candidacy for this seat. Incumbent Democrat Anne McLaurin recently said she does not plan to run again. As of publication, no Republicans have announced plans to run for the District 5 seat.
A professor of chemistry at North Carolina State University with two children in the Wake County Public School System, Martin would like to shift the conversation away from student assignment to teaching and learning.
Martin sees funding as a major issue the school board must confront.
“My daughter goes to Enloe High School, which many people talk about as an over-resourced school. Then, I see her used textbooks that are hand-me-downs from other schools,” Martin said.
Martin believes the board needs to review how it assesses teachers and students.
“Too many factors go into a child’s learning or personality to have such simple measures” as standardized test scores, he said. Martin supports developing assessments around multiple intelligences and artifacts such as real-world writing assessments and projects.
“It is too easy to categorize certain groups of people as perpetually low achievers,” Martin said.
But he does not agree with the push to put more students in Algebra in eighth grade if they have a probability of passing.
“Passing is not a cutoff I am happy with,” he said. “We focus far too much on accelerating and not on the rigor or the matter of understanding the subject.”
Martin does not believe charter schools are the answer to Wake County’s achievement gap or funding problems.
“As Superintendent Tata said, his goal is to make Wake County Public Schools so strong that there’s no need for charter schools; my goal is to make Wake County Public Schools so strong that charter and private schools are anti-competitive,” Martin said.
Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in District 5 by about 9,000 members, but the district’s more than 17,000 swing voters could tip the race either way.
Christine Kushner is currently the only candidate for District 6. A Democrat, Kushner is a writer, policy analyst and active member of the District 6 Board Advisory Committee, the Superintendent’s Parent Advisory Council and the Great Schools in Wake Coalition.
Her participation in Great Schools puts her squarely in the partisan rancor that developed between that group and the conservative board majority. In April, Board Member John Tedesco (District 2) included Great Schools in the “unholy trinity” that he saw as standing in the way of the board majority’s progress.
Like other Democratic contenders, Kushner wants to turn attention back to the classroom. She has been involved for the last six years in after-school programs sponsored by the YWCA and the North Carolina Department of Instruction. After-school programs, she said, can create “a culture of attendance.”
Along with Martin, Kushner applauds efforts by the current board majority to overhaul its discipline policy.
“We suspend students for truancy, which I think is counterintuitive,” she said.
Kushner views charter schools as labs to test ideas that might then be used in traditional public schools.
“To me they should be incubators for innovation,” Kushner said.
District 6 features a 14,000-member lead for Democrats. Still, the district’s more than 17,000 independents could close the gap.
Board Chair Ron Margiotta is seeking is seeking re-election in this southeastern Wake district. His tie-breaking vote has been critical to the board majority during the past year and half, including in the dramatic 5-4 vote that brought down the socioeconomic diversity policy.
Margiotta did not return phone calls and e-mails seeking comment for this story.
Democrats have not yet fielded a candidate in this district, which is the only majority-Republican school board district.