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Brainstorm

Glen Lang's latest scheme is about schools--so heads up, Wake County!

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Glen Lang, Cary's new high-octane mayor, comes from the "do something" school. The Wake County school system is systematically underfunded and overcrowded? "We need to do something," Lang exclaims. And bounding--one imagines--to his desk, he taps out a white paper, posts it at www.townofcary.org, calls a public hearing, courts the press, flays his critics and stirs the pot. The term "mover and shaker" is badly overused, usually by men in suits. Lang, however, a shirtsleeved guy in a pinstriped town, seems literally to move and shake even as he's standing still, exhorting you to the cause.

His cause right now is to put $3.7 million of Cary's money into the Wake schools--$200 apiece, in other words, for each of Cary's school-aged children. Not directly, though. His plan is to set up a nonprofit organization, the Cary Educational Foundation, and give it the money. The foundation would then make $200 per student available to the schools they attend--for suitable uses, of course.

Will private schools be eligible? Parochial schools? And what's to keep the Wake system from taking $300,000, say, for the 1,500 locals at Cary High School, and then simply appropriating $300,000 less from its own budget for CHS? Good questions, all of them raised at Lang's hearing this month, and all grist for Lang's mill, he says. He doesn't know the answers. They'll have to be worked out. Another question: Who'll be on the foundation? Lang was thinking he'd be on it, but public comments have changed his mind--now he thinks it should be mostly teachers.

But these are mere details, Lang emphasizes. The important thing is that Cary wants top-notch schools, it can afford to pay for them (average family income, he points out, is $72,000 a year), and if the rest of Wake County is too cheap, so be it. Cary must "do something."

To some, Lang's plan has the whiff of separatism about it. The Wake school system seems on the verge of flying apart anyway, with its 115 schools and its continual student reassignments so that each school stays "diverse"--not too rich, not too poor--even though the neighborhoods they're in are anything but diverse. Indeed, Lang's hearing brought forth some parents advocating Cary's secession from the system. It was just too much for Dickey Eason, a local business owner who was born in Cary and remembers when it was a sleepy 'burg. Eason, in a crisp blue blazer, said he's all for the town giving money to good causes, whether it's affordable housing or helping little Princeville recover from Hurricane Floyd. That sends the right message to Cary's kids about what their parents stand for. But tacking $200 extra onto the name-brand back of each Cary student as they head off for school "lends an air of exclusivity that is at odds with our values," Eason said. "Do we really want to perpetuate the image of ourselves as privileged?"

Moreover, Lang's plan calls for developers to build new schools in Cary and donate them to the foundation. They'd get a tax deduction, his white paper says. "As an added benefit, developers can likely charge more for new housing units" since kids would have reserved seats in a neighborhood school. So much for diversity unless Cary's housing policies change dramatically. But wait! Lang's working on that, too.

The best thing about Lang's plan is that it points to Wake County's fundamental problem. When Cary, Raleigh, and the other 10 towns in the county approve a subdivision, the local governments come out ahead--they take in more in property taxes than the houses cost them in services. But the county doesn't, because it pays for the schools. Cary is sitting on a huge surplus--$80 million or so--and its low (54 cent) tax rate. County taxes are up--10 cents last year--and still the school system is broke.

Perhaps Lang should be insisting that every town in Wake County kick in for the schools? "Well, off the record," the mayor says. ... And, with a dozen listeners nodding, he's off on another brainstorm. But, at least till he writes it up, you'll have to get it from them. EndBlock

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