Referendum On Diversity?

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CORRECTION APPENDED: In the article below, school board candidate Donna Williams was identified as running for District 3. She is running for District 6.

This year’s school board elections gives Wake County voters the chance to put their seal of approval on the majority that’s been in power the last two years, or to unseat it — and that’s a bit nerve wracking no matter which side you are on.

Diversity supporters claim that the elections two years ago — when the new majority gained power — were hijacked by a well-organized, well-funded minority. But neighborhood schools proponents, on the other hand, say the elections two years ago proved that people in Wake County wanted change from the diversity policy.

This year is an opportunity to find out who was right.

Five of the nine school board seats are up for grabs, which means the majority could change hands. But it’s an uphill battle for diversity supporters. All four minority seats are open, along with that of long-time neighborhood schools supporter and Board Chair Ron Margiotta.

But, does it even make sense for this year’s elections to be a referendum on the old diversity debate?

Superintendent Tony Tata’s “choice” plan is shaping up virtually in time with the elections and it doesn’t quite look like the diversity policy or neighborhood schools.

The New Assignment Plan
The plan factors in proximity as the most important part of student assignment, as per board policy. However, students are given a choice of multiple schools, which is a far cry from a strictly neighborhood system.

“Choice happens at kindergarten,” said assignment task force member Brad McMillen.

Once a parent ranks his or her child’s choices and is assigned a school, the child will remain in the same feeder pattern until graduation.

However, as McMillen also pointed out at a public meeting at Wakefield High School, “You can change at any time.”
Parents only need to rank their choices when their child enters school, but they can go online and request a change anytime they want.

“Parents vote with their feet,” McMillen said. “If a school is low-performing, people will leave.”

“It ratchets the pressure up on the system,” he added. “The system must continually make schools better to keep demand high.”

Achievement Schools
Achievement schools, now being marketed as “high-performing” schools, could become to Tata’s assignment plan what the public option was to President Obama’s health care bill.

They’ve been the most contested part of the plan, with many echoing District 6 candidate Donna Williams’ sentiment that “all schools should be achievement schools.”

The purpose of achievement schools is to take in low-performing students who can’t get into their magnet choice. Schools achieve “high-performing” status through an equation that weighs teacher and student performance as well as graduation rates for high schools.

The driving ethos behind Tata’s assignment plan is proximity, choice, stability and achievement.

But the very notion of “achievement” schools confuses the priorities, because achievement is weighted heavier in the assignment equation.

Williams, a Republican, also pointed out, “I like the idea, but I’m not sure I like the name … I’m concerned about the message it sends.”

Non-partisan, You Say?
School board elections may be non-partisan, but this year’s elections are a battle of partisan politics — as the policy battles of the past two years have been.

Democrats will have to sweep the elections to retake control of the nine-member board, which
means every race will be pivotal this year.

School board elections may be non-partisan, but this year’s elections are a battle of partisan politics — as the policy battles of the past two years have been.

Democrats will have to sweep the elections to retake control of the nine-member board, which means every race will be
pivotal this year.

One majority school board member is up this year, Board Chair Ron Margiotta. Margiotta has held the District 8 seat since 2003.

He relocated from the Northeast 11 years ago where he ran a warehouse business. His grandson attended Wake County
schools and, Margiotta said, was reassigned three times in four years.

“My daughter pulled him out of the public school system,” he said. “That’s what got me involved and concerned about what I consider to be a failure of our public school system. It was a family unfriendly district.”

His opponent Susan Evans is an accountant with two children who have graduated from Wake County public schools.
She’s been endorsed by the North Carolina Association of Educators. Evans is a supporter of the old diversity policy.

However, she said of the new assignment plan, “The controlled choice plan is a good middle ground.”

Countywide, Democrats outweigh Republicans, but Margiotta’s district is the only one up for grabs with a majority of Republicans. It’s composed of 31 percent Dems, 36 percent Republicans and 32 percent unaffiliated.

With more unaffiliated voters than Democrats, independents could easily be the driving force behind who takes home District 8.

Another interesting race has shaped up in District 3, where incumbent Kevin Hill faces two heavyweight conservatives.

Heather Losordo jumped in the race first and received an endorsement from the Wake County GOP, but Jennifer Mansfield has gotten, perhaps, the more important nod from the Wake Community Schools Alliance.

WCSA was extremely influential in electing the conservative majority two years ago. However, with two major conservative candidates going head to head, the door is wide open for Hill to avoid a run-off.

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