Wake school board race reaches new political heights

Oct. 10, 2011 6:02 pm

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Read past coverage of the Wake County school board race here.

RALEIGH – With Wake County having experienced exponential growth and debate raging over school assignment policy, the campaigns for five seats on the Wake County Board of Education have gone into overdrive.

The state’s second most populous county, which has largest school district, is facing a critical civic moment, particularly in regards to the assignment of students in light of the county’s rapid population growth and urban sprawl.

With 14 candidates vying to fill five open seats on the county’s school board on Tuesday,  party affiliation has played a prominent role in these officially non-partisan elections.

Democrats seek to unseat the Republican majority formed as a result of the 2009 elections.

“There was very little of the partisan rhetoric you hear today,” said Tim Simmons, vice president of communications for Wake Education Partnership.  “Coverage previous to 2009 had more of a civic responsibility feel to it.”

John Gilbert, a former Wake school board member and retired N.C. State professor, echoed the observation of heightened partisanship.

“Partisanship is a new development and quite frankly, I find it appalling,” he said. “I strongly believe in political parties, and if the legislature wanted to make the school board elections partisan, I wouldn’t agree, but it would be okay. But now you have people who are running and on the board endorsed by political parties, so they will feel a need to serve those parties and their ideals, and the only ones they should be serving and the only obligations they have is to serve the children of Wake County.”

Due to Wake County’s immense population growth — from 628,000 people in the 2000 census to 901,000 in the 2010 census — school attendance zones have been redrawn, and debates over how to create ethnically and economically diverse as well as high-achieving schools through the assignment of students have erupted.

Up until the late 1990s and early 2000s, Wake County tended to bus mostly low-income and minority students, said Simmons.  The county shifted from assigning students to schools based on race and adopted a policy to assure students of various socioeconomic backgrounds in schools.

“Nationally, courts were making it clear that making individual decisions based on race was not going to meet with legal standards,” said Simmons.  By the early 2000s, Wake County’s suburbs began expanding rapidly, and new schools had to be built each year to accommodate new students.  This led to many students being reassigned.

“The issue was not a racial one; there were just too many kids,” said Simmons.  Gilbert made a similar point: “It’s not a problem of race, it’s a problem of poverty.”

The 2009 elections brought a dramatic shift on the school board. A 5-4 Republican majority moved aggressively to eradicate the school assignment policy based around socioeconomic factors and began developing a plan based on students’ proximity to schools.

The controversy arises from pro-diversity forces arguing that a neighborhood-based would  resegregate Wake’s schools. The board’s majority and its supporters argue that busing students farther from home wastes money and that the socioeconomic-based assignment policy leads to lower achieving schools.

“It is accurate historically to think this election is more prevalent and newsworthy than previous school board elections,” said Simmons.  “With the controversy, it’s gotten a lot more heated and a lot more attention.”

The school board debates and the current election, to the delight of some and embarrassment of others, have put Wake County in the national news.  Media outlets from CNN to The New York Times to Christian Science Monitor have all published stories touching on such issues as race, education policy and divisive politics in Wake County.

Even though change in both the majority of the board and the assignment policy rides on this election, a healthy turnout is not guaranteed. Much hinges on the effectiveness of grass-roots organizing and mobilization of voters.

“School board elections generally have a low turnout because they happen in off years, and more than 70 percent [of the county’s] population doesn’t have kids in the school system,” said Simmons.  “It’s hard to know where exactly the public stands on this.”

The 2009 election centered on districts in the suburban areas of the county.  This year, the five districts in play represent a cross-section of city and suburbs neighborhoods. While some of the districts up for re-election are wealthier and predominately white, others are very diverse, both economically and ethnically.

School Districts Municipalities
District 3 (North Raleigh) Raleigh & Creedmoor
District 4 (East Raleigh) Raleigh, Knightdale and parts of Garner
District 5 (South Central Raleigh) Raleigh & Cary
District 6 (Central Raleigh) Raleigh
District 8 (Southern Wake) Parts of Cary, Apex and Holly Springs

This article was reported as a part of the JOMC 253 Reporting course at UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.