Local/State

Wake County school board ends diversity policy

Wednesday, March 24, 2010
The Wake County School Board meets Tuesday March 23 A protest in the hall outside the Wake County School board meeting March 23.

In a long-anticipated move, the Wake County Board of Education voted 5-4 Tuesday night to establish a directive to move away from its long-standing diversity policy in favor of community-based assignments.

The decision to end the diversity policy came after a number of competing resolutions and amendments presented by board members Keith Sutton, Carolyn Morrison, and Kevin Hill were voted down.

In a seemingly conciliatory move, an amendment by board member John Tedesco to have any community zone plan presented in public meetings prior to adoption was approved.

Also approved unanimously was an amendment by board member Anne McLaurin that essentially quoted the state constitution, providing for "a plan that provides all students at all schools with an equal opportunity to a sound, basic education."

The decision, according to school board lawyer Ann Majestic, does not legally change policy at this point. However, it signals a clear direction for the board moving forward.

During public comment at the meeting, most people spoke out against the board's intent to end the school system's nationally-recognized socio-economic diversity policy. One of the first speakers was NAACP state president Rev. William Barber.

"We will never go back," said Barber. "What you do tonight does not mark an end to our cause, but the beginning of an even more unified effort to stop the plans you hope to implement."

He later spoke to ABC11 Eyewitness News after the board's vote.

"It's not just us but all of our advocates from the national level all the way down," Barber said. "We will examine every step that they make. We'll use title 6, the state Constitution, the federal Constitution, lay it like a grid on top of each decision they make and when we believe they've gone out of bounds then we will dress it accordingly."

The board majority says there are current laws in place to prevent segregation. And they say they'll have a desegregation plan in place should that occur.

The board plans to create community schools by dividing the county into zones. Once they have a basic model they'll hold public hearings before anything is final.

"Now we have 9-15 months to work together," board member John Tedesco said. "We're going to work with our colleagues and the community to build a model that'll work for all of our children."

The diversity issue also boiled over outside the board room when a group of current and former Wake County students started voicing their concern about repealing the policy and disrupted the meeting for about 20 minutes.

After Board Chair Ron Margiotta failed to get them to quiet down they were eventually forced out of the building by police.

Three people were arrested according to Raleigh police, and about 20 were escorted out.

Raleigh Police Public Information Officer Jim Sughrue says 29-year-old Dante Emmanuel Strobino, 21-year-old Duncan Edward Hardee and 20-year-old Rakhee Shirish Vasthali were taken to the Wake County Jail.

Strobino was charged with second degree trespassing, while Hardee and Vasthali were each charged with one count of resisting delaying or obstructing a law enforcement officer.

Meanwhile, those in support of the new school board majority let their voices be heard as well.

"If you really want to get to the problem, we need to look at cause and effect," said Bill Randall of Wake Forest during public comment. "Let's get away from the status quo. If we're serious, let's look at empirical data to see where the problems lie, and let's let this school board do what they were elected to do."

A group called Wake Cares, which also supports the new school board majority, will hold a news conference Wednesday at 10 a.m. at the Halle Cultural Arts Center of Apex.

Members will thank the school board for voting to implement the new community based school assignment policy.

The change to the diversity policy wasn't the only major decision made by the board Tuesday.

One of the first actions after public comment was to waive a decision on changing school bell schedules. Board members said they could not support moving elementary schools to a 9:30 a.m. start time, because research shows young children work better earlier in the morning.

The board also publicly voted to place Superintendent Del Burns on administrative leave until June 30, ratifying a closed-door vote that had already been taken.

They also made a decision to wait until next month to discuss whether or not to raise lunch prices.

Budget

It was a long day for school board members, to be sure. Their first meeting began just after 11 a.m., as they began working through more than $20 million in budget cuts in a packed board conference room.

With a full slate of security staff looking on, and many community members watching a live feed of the meeting in the main board room, members had the opportunity to press district staff on the difficult steps necessary to implement the 2010-2011 budget presented on March 2.

As the budget work session progressed, members discussed nearly 40 questions posed to staff about the budget cuts, ranging from their impact on Project Enlightenment, to how it might affect music, art, and P.E. programs.

Such specific budget items as whether school board headquarters is owned or leased, and the professional organizations to which the district pays dues, were also discussed.

Chairman Ron Margiotta stated April 20 as the goal for adopting the budget, just prior to a meeting with Wake County commissioners on April 21.

Members plan additional workshops to hash out details they were not able to get to on Tuesday.

The committee meeting was almost moved into the main board room so the full crowd in attendance could observe in person. But the idea was quickly struck down by Margiotta, who has the authority as chairman to make such decisions. Margiotta said the closed-circuit feed into the main board room sufficed for public access.

"I'm the bad guy," Margiotta said, as other board members expressed displeasure at the decision.

Tickets required to get into meeting

The previous school board meeting was rowdy and officials expected a huge turnout Tuesday as well. They implemented a new policy which required tickets to get in - saying it was for safety and security reasons.

A ticket guaranteed a seat in the main board room to a member of the public. Anyone who left to go to the restroom or make a phone call had to keep their ticket to get back in. Anyone who decided to leave permanently was asked to turn in their ticket so it could be given to someone else waiting to get in.

The new system, as expected, caused controversy. During the Committee of the Whole meeting, a 15-minute video and audio outage left people in the board room with no way to watch the meeting. And late Tuesday morning, a coalition of lawyers sent e-mails to all school board members, calling for a repeal of the new meeting policies.

They argued the new rules unfairly prevent some parents from attending the meeting, which they call a violation of open meeting laws. They wanted the full board meeting later in the day held at a larger venue.

The state NAACP also released a statement in support of the idea.

School board members were in their budget session when the e-mails were sent, and did not immediately comment. But Chairman Margiotta refused to move the full board meeting to a larger venue, after requests by some news outlets.

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