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The Wake school board: Brought to you by the letters N and O

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With a new school year beginning and the start of an election season upon us in Wake County, it is helpful to review where we are and where we're not after nine months of the new anti-diversity school board majority.

Where we're not is anywhere near having a new student assignment plan. Shortly after being elected, the new majority rushed to remove all references to diversity from the policy governing such plans. That was done in a series of 5-4 votes in which they flexed their muscles and ignored all efforts at compromise, igniting a firestorm of protest.

But after crushing the other four members, the Majority Five now seem a little lost about what to do next.

A timeline issued by John Tedesco, the Fiver in charge of coming up with a new plan, says the full board should decide by the end of September how many assignment zones it wants, in how many regions, "as well as the boundaries of the zones and regions."

So far, Tedesco has talked about five regions with 18 zones—or maybe seven regions, or nine— but the boundaries are the key. He and his student assignment committee have offered only theoretical plans using boundaries established for other purposes (for the seven area assistant superintendents, for example).

Meanwhile, the "old" board's three-year assignment plan remains in place through the 2011–12 school year. That's the plan that the new majority hated so much because it accounted for diversity—along with proximity to home, stability of assignments and the other factors the majority says were neglected. That's the plan Tedesco was directed to replace, even when 94 percent of the 40,000 parents who answered the majority's survey said they were "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with their children's assignments.

No wonder Tedesco is having trouble.

By my count, once the boundaries are established—the 16th step in Tedesco's timeline—just 34 more steps will be required before the end of 2010, when his committee is supposed to recommend "a preliminary, multi-year assignment plan to the board for consideration."

After that, it's only 39 more steps, plus "7-9 community engagement meetings ... to obtain feedback" before the full board can adopt the final plan toward the end of 2011—which may push it conveniently past the next school board election.

Now, I know it must seem like Tedesco's not stepping very fast for a man with such a long row to hoe. But if you've ever seen him run a meeting, he may be going faster than we think. Does his monologue count as a step? Maybe. ("Determine which analysis tools—Growth & Planning utility, SAS, or ITRE, is/are to be used." Not sure he didn't laugh his way through that one at some point.)

How about Stupid Staff Tricks? They're always funny. And sometimes, he calls on the studio audience or even—this is rare—other committee members. All he needs is a band and—"Heeere's Johnny!"

Nor does the majority seem close to hiring a superintendent to replace the departed Del Burns, who resigned rather than abet the majority's anti-diversity schemes. Fine, said the majority, which thereupon flexed its muscles some more and, in 5-4 votes, quit the N.C. School Boards Association, which is headed by former Wake superintendent (and one-time National Superintendent of the Year) Bill McNeal— and changed another policy so that the new superintendent doesn't need educational experience.

The N.C. School Boards Association, not incidentally, offered to help with the superintendent search for a mere $15,000; they do it all the time for their members (now every school board but Wake's). Instead, the majority hired a firm, Heidrick & Struggles, for $82,500, apparently because it has corporate clients.

So no assignment plan, no superintendent, no N.C. School Boards Association membership and, by the way, no standing committees. In a 5-4 vote, the majority abolished every committee except the ad hoc superintendent search committee, Tedesco's student assignment committee and a task force also headed by Tedesco that's supposed to help economically disadvantaged students. No more policy committee, facilities committee, budget committee—all of the traditional committees will now give way to a single monthly "work session" by the board.

Meanwhile, the regular board meetings have been halved from two a month to one. This further restricts the already extremely limited opportunities for the public to speak before a board majority that has watched four, 19 and six protesters, respectively, submit to arrest during recent sessions. The majority has clearly had it with the public.

Public comments were previously slashed from three minutes to two, and the two are gonged forcefully. If you continue to talk, you could be arrested.

When Anne McLaurin, one of the four minority members, suggested that some public comment time should be added to the monthly work session, board Chairman Ron Margiotta let it be known right quick that there'd be no such thing. "I would never support that in a million years," Margiotta said loudly to himself. "I wouldn't."

So, if not no public comment, as little as possible.

The elections this fall for Wake County commissioners, though, will offer the public a chance to weigh in. The school board majority, all Republicans, is closely aligned with the three Republicans on the commission, each of whom is up for re-election.

A vote to re-elect the GOP slate of Joe Bryan, Paul Coble and Tony Gurley, and to replace incumbent Democrat Lindy Brown with Republican Phil Matthews, is the surest way for voters to register that they like the school board of "no."

On the other hand, if Brown wins and her three Democratic running mates—Jack Nichols, Steve Rao and Don Mial—do too, they'll join three Democrat holdovers to form a 7-0 Democratic majority. For the school board of "no," that would be a very resounding NO.

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