A Day Later: Thoughts on the Wake school situation

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diversitymarch.jpg
  • Photo by Bob Geary

Another Wake school board meeting, another tumultuous Tuesday. The pro-diversity march and rally on Fayetteville Street was over-shadowed by the protests and arrests at the board meeting a few hours later. Someone said to me last night that it was a mistake for the Rev. Barber & Co. to get arrested — they stepped on their own publicity, in effect. I'm of two minds: That's true; and yet, if Barber, the Rev. Petty and the rest hadn't been arrested last time, yesterday's rally would've numbered 100, not 1,500. With a second round of arrests, another mass event becomes likely ... and the pressure on the school board majority gets cranked up a little higher. (And I would say, while the newspaper coverage focused on the arrests, the TV pictures of the march and of Barber and Petty getting arrested merely for attempting to attend the board meeting were a compelling combination.)

No question, the agitating and chanting out of turn inside the board meetings is off-putting even if you agree with the chanters, as I do. For one thing, there's an undoubted backlash effect not just on the anti-diversity side but also among those who haven't taken a side yet but believe in civility. Is that a price worth paying? It is only if you think that the prospect of re-segregation in the Wake schools is real and that the school board majority will bring it on, ignoring every view that doesn't align with their own, unless and until they are stopped by an opposition with moral weight and an aroused voting majority. if you think both things are true then, yes, civil disobedience is one way to respond, though not the only way.

Another way to respond is politically, starting with the Wake Commissioners elections this fall. Backlash to the protests will bring out the Republican vote, certainly. The protests may help to wake up the Democratic vote, especially the African-American Democratic vote that helped Barack Obama sweep Wake County two years ago but which has gone to ground since. Independent voters, as always, will be critical. The school board majority, a Republican majority, is handling things very badly to date. The protesters can underscore each of their failures; but the protesters need to be careful not to look worse while doing it than the problem they're attacking.

Two other points:

1) About public participation: The board majority voted, with its customary lack of prior notice or public consideration, to hold just one public meeting a month instead of two (with a second, "work" session taking the place of the other regular meeting). It also voted to end regular committee meetings for at least three months (this applies only to standing committees; the ones dealing with assignment zones and ED (economically disadvantaged) kids can continue, though neither meets much anyway.)

Both moves will sharply limit the public's ability to observe what the majority is up to. Cutting the number of regular board meetings in half will cut the number of opportunities for public comment in half as well.

Clearly, the new majority isn't into explaining what they're thinking, let alone why they're thinking it. (Note to John Tedesco: There's a difference between explaining why something's the case and just saying it is.)

Which leads me to my second point, which is —

2) About diversity: Diversity is generally understood to mean having women in the mix with men and African-Americans and others of color in the mix with European-Americans (i.e., white folks). But the purpose of diversity isn't just that everyone's represented, it's that people from different backgrounds have different perspectives and, often, view the same set of facts quite differently and reach different conclusions about them.

For example, I may see a group of students entering a school and say that they all have an equal opportunity to do well in their studies. Someone else may see the same group of students and observe that some have parents with college degrees and houses full of books and neighbors the same ... and others have a father who's gone, a mom who works, no one in the family has been to college and there are no books in the house and not many in the neighborhood.

These are observations I might've made if I'd thought about it. The other person did think about it, probably because her experiences were different than mine.

Now, let's apply diversity — the purpose of diversity — to our school board majority. They could take time to hear and consider what the pro-diversity folks say, which is that diversity is an important, even critical element of a good education. They could consider the abundant evidence that diverse schools work better for low-income kids and also for well-off kids who get to meet and mingle with students whose views on thing might be different than their own. They could take testimony from experts. They could see whether a win-win is possible: Shorten bus routes, say, but retain diversity as a desired outcome in school assignments.

Or, they could make a show, at least, of listening to the other side, then do exactly what they intended in the first place, which is to junk diversity and have their own "neighborhood" schools in their own suburban neighborhoods, and the poor kids be damned.

Make a bow to diversity, in other words, by appearing to consider diverse opinions before rejecting them.

But this board majority doesn't even do that. Their disdain for different opinions is palpable. It came out in so many words yesterday when school board member Anne McLaurin, discussing the move to one regular meeting a month instead of two, asked that public comment be allowed at the second, work session — so as to preserve the public's chances to speak. McLaurin, of course, is one of the four in the minority on the 5-4 Republican-majority board.

Board Chairman Ron Margiotta, Papa Ron in GOP circles, doesn't say much at meetings, but he does guffaw from time to time when someone like McLaurin makes a point that she thinks he ought to consider ... but which he not only will refuse to consider, he relishes the fact that he's in the majority and doesn't have to consider it.

McLaurin's suggestion about public participation gave Margiotta just such a kick. "I would never support that in a million years," Margiotta said quite loudly to himself. "I wouldn't."

He was smiling with some satisfaction, because he didn't have to support it, or even think about it. "Sorry," Margiotta added.

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