by Bob Geary
As the first meeting of the "new" Wake County Board of Education ended last night, more than five hours after it began, I listened in as former board member Carol Parker and former candidate Curt Stangler were discussing what they'd just seen. Parker said she was furious about the majority's preemptory tactics. Stangler, not disagreeing, predicted better times ahead -- because how could things get worse?
I should immediately add that Parker's not the furious type, and Stangler even less so, if that's possible. You're looking for solid moderates? Reasonable people who'll listen to every side? They are all of that. Parker was part of the old pro-diversity majority when she was on the board, Stangler a mild critic when he ran in '05. (He lost to Eleanor Goettee in District 9, the Cary district.) But there's not a strident bone in either one of them. And last night, sitting together, they probably constituted the only unaligned pair of observers in a meeting room filled with angry teachers, angry parents, angry (or appalled) Wake school system officials, a few folks who were on the side of the new board majority, and of course the objective press corps, myself included.
My point is, if even Carol Parker and Curt Stangler thought the new board majority had just screwed up (and they're much too polite to use such a word, but on the way out of the meeting Parker repeated to Debra Goldman, who's part of the majority bloc, how furious she was about their tactics), it's a pretty good indication that the majority's debut as public officials in charge was an unmitigated failure.
Let's review: There were two ways the new five-member majority could've handled their first meeting. One was, they could've reached out to those on the other side -- including the other four members of the board -- and initiated the kind of gradual, thoughtful and community-wide change process that the issues facing the school system clearly merit ... and that some of the five, at least, have been promising since they were elected. They won; they have an agenda; no need to rub everybody's noses in it.
The other way: They could charge in, ignore everybody who's missed out on the Kool-Aid, do the same thing they accused the old board of, which is not listening to people with different ideas, and attempt to get their way real fast before any opposition can get organized to stop them.
The five -- Goldman, Debra Goldman, Deborah Prickett, Chris Malone, John Tedesco, and the new chair, Ron Margiotta -- chose the second way.
If there'd been any fur in the room, it would've flown a few minutes after the meeting started.
But then a funny, if predictable thing happened. The five of them blinked.
Having pissed off just about everybody there with an amazingly brazen or else tone-deaf brand of political pushiness, the five seemed all of a sudden to get cold feet, and they backed away from most of their own agenda.
Thus, they ended up with the worst of both worlds: They came off looking like power-hungry pols who didn't give a damn about consensus; but unlike your effective PHP's, they'd failed to finish the job and in fact let themselves be talked out of most of what they proposed rather easily -- which made them look inept.
That's not to say they won't follow through on all of it eventually. It's only to observe that, after coming to their first meeting loaded for bear -- with a list of eight giganto policy resolutions they literally pulled out of their pockets and threw on the table -- the new majority hemmed and hawed and struggled to defend their positions to the point that you wondered about their ability to, you know, plan ahead?
I mean, if you're going to act like a bully, you shouldn't cave in at the first sign of resistance.
As we were walking out of the meeting, Goldman said her intention was to present the various resolutions for debate -- "get the issues on the table" -- and not to ram them through. She anticipated lots of discussion and give-and-take, she said. She seemed sincere (and a little shell-shocked).
But if that's what she intended, it sure didn't come off that way. Which Parker told her straight up. Goldman said she was chagrined that most of the teachers, who'd hooted loudly at the new board's openers and used the public comment period to chew them out, walked out a little later -- after Margiotta threatened to have them removed unless they quieted down.
Parker told her they had a right to walk out, and she predicted that the way the majority conducted itself would only serve to awaken a sleeping giant -- the vast number of teachers, parents and other supporters of the Wake school system who didn't vote in October, probably because they thought both sides in the campaign had a point, but who aren't going to like it if the new board tramples everything that's positive about the Wake system.
Stangler thought that Goldman should be credited for sounding a conciliatory note, and pulling her allies back from the brink, after the others had dug themselves a deep hole with their blustery beginning.
Fair enough. I also thought John Tedesco, who talked community-wide process in his interview with me a month ago but came in firing last night, had a moment of clarity at a key point, albeit only after Goldman got through to him that things were dangerously out of control.
The Tedesco/Goldman moment came as the majority was preparing to obliterate the longstanding board policy on diversity, the major issue in the campaign. The five presented their resolution and, after a brief exchange, rejected by a 5-4 vote a motion by Keith Sutton, a board member in the pro-diversity minority, to refer the matter to the board's policy committee.
Given that the resolution wasn't on the meeting agenda, and no one had seen it before last night (and the majority brought no copies to share), sending it to a committee seemed a reasonable -- no, obligatory -- step.
The diversity policy, after all, is only the cornerstone of the system's three decades of success, and maybe you don't just want to toss it out without hearing a little discussion first?
But no, the majority voted as a bloc to plow ahead. On a 5-4 vote, it rejected Sutton's motion. But with Goldman obviously uncomfortable, Tedesco called for a five-minute recess, and after the five huddled, they came back and reversed themselves, accepting Sutton's motion unanimously.
By then, however, their dye was cast. They were bullies, but also weak. And the chance they'd had to bring their critics around to a consensual change process was out the door.
Four of the five, of course, are new members -- and three are novices at holding public office. (Chris Malone is a former Wake Forest committeeman.) Maybe I'm going soft, but it's possible for me to imagine that the three, at least, didn't mean to strike a confrontational note, they simply blundered into it.
But the chair, Margiotta, isn't new. He's been a board member for six years, and it was his job -- after his allies elected him -- to set the proper tone. I'm no judge of whether he, too, blundered, or whether he thought belligerence was the right way to go. But Margiotta, who said little throughout the meeting, was obviously prepared to adopt every one of the eight resolutions on the spot until Goldman and Tedesco pulled back. He set the tone, all right, and his colleagues followed him off the cliff.
So what did the Board actually do, or not do, last night? A brief blow-by-blow will follow below the fold.
Here's a recap of the meeting:
The majority bloc arrived with eight agenda items not previously revealed. They insisted that the eight must be considered immediately, rather than at the next meeting, as was the custom previously. When other members pushed back, asking to be allowed to study the issues, the bloc voted 5-4 to override their objections.
After that, the eight resolutions came out of their pockets one at a time.
1 -- Replace Kevin Hill, a holdover member, as chair. The bloc installed one of their own, Ron Margiotta, the only member of the majority five with any prior board experience.
2 -- Hire their own legal counsel. The school board attorney is Ann Majestic. The new majority voted 5-4 to hire their own "interim special counsel," Raleigh attorney Tom Farr, in addition to Majestic. Farr's duties: Whatever Margiotta assigns to him -- but for starters, he's supposed to decide whether the school board spends too much on lawyers. (!)
3 -- "Change in Student Assignment Policy." This was the biggie -- the bloc wanted to redline out the language in the existing policy about diversity (no more "creating and maintaining a diverse student body" in every school), and they seemed like they were right ready to do it. But when the audience started hooting and hollering about how they weren't listening to anybody the same way they said the old board didn't listen, the five all of a sudden reversed a prior vote and agreed to put the issue into a committee for discussion.
4 -- "Ensure parental choice regarding year-round schools." This one started out as a directive to the staff to "immediately cease the directive of opening all new schools on a year-round calendar and stop work on any conversions of remaining schools to mandatory year-round"; also, to "end mandatory assignment to year-round schools" effective in 2010-11. It ended up as a toothless directive to Superintendent Del Burns to make a survey of what parents want.
5 -- "End all expenditures on the H-6 site." This resolution set out to stop the staff from moving forward on the previously selected Forest Hills High School site in Northeast Wake and force the sale of the land. It ended up ratifying a study already underway.
6 -- "A resolution to save costs and expenses." This one began as a hiring freeze for all non-teaching personnel, with exceptions only for "critical" positions as determined by the board. It ended up as a freeze on the 5 percent of personnel of non-teaching personnel who work in central services rather than a school (some administrative types, some plumbers and mechanics), and the exceptions will be determined -- as they are now -- by Superintendent Del Burns. (No one is ever hired, before or now, without board approval.)
7 -- "Resolution to end early release Wednesdays." Students are released an hour early on Wednesdays so teachers can meet together for planning purposes in "PLTs" (professional learning teams). Teachers think the PLTs are great. Burns thinks the coordinated efforts will raise student achievement scores. But the majority bloc voted to end the early Wednesdays as of the end of the year while directing Burns to figure out how else to hold PLTs while not inconveniencing parents or cutting into the school day. Board member Kevin Hill, the ousted chair, said the majority couldn't have it both ways -- either planning is part of the school day or it isn't. By 5-4, the bloc said it isn't -- but should happen anyway.
8 -- Another meeting on December 15. Hill, as chair, had cancelled a second December meeting, ordinarily scheduled for the third Tuesday, after consulting with every member, he said. But the majority bloc wants to move fast, and voted to hold it anyway.