by Bob Geary
It felt like we were in a tomb Tuesday night when the Wake school board meeting finally ended — or better (and I'd imagine the board majority felt this way too), as this allegedly "open meeting" finally ground to a close. Board Chairman Ron Margiotta was reading disinterestedly from the list of folks who'd signed up hours earlier to speak during the public comment period. But almost all of them were long gone. It was after 8 pm; some 40 people had signed up starting at 2 pm for a comment period that began at 4 pm ... but the public comment, such as it was (you get 2 minutes flat, then you're gonged), was cut off mid-way through the list so the board could go into private session for 45 minutes ... then back into public session to dispense with diversity once and (they hope) for all ... then into private session again without any indication how long it would last ... and after an hour or so the board returned for another very brief public session, after which the public comment period resumed ... but could the board majority have been less interested?
And this, ironically, just a few days after a judge ruled that, whatever interest or disinterest the board majority has in hearing from the public, the fact that it continues to meet in an open room that some people can get into is enough to satisfy the requirements of the state's Open Meetings Law.
Ironically? Wrong word. Cynically.
Early on in their tenure, the new board majority made an effort to look, at least, like they were respecting some sort of public process as they pushed their conservative agenda ahead. But after almost six months in office, it's clear that they can no longer be bothered with such niceties. Four of the five in the majority, all but John Tedesco, simply brush off the efforts of the four-member minority to forge a compromise on diversity, school assignments or anything else. Margiotta, Debra Goldman, Deborah Prickett and Chris Malone simply refuse to engage on any subject, perhaps fearing that if they try, they'll suffer Tedesco's fate from Tuesday night — that is, trying to offer a justification for his position on diversity and sounding like a fool.
This board majority holds no public hearings. It collects no evidence that might contradict its opinions, and it rejects such evidence when it's offered. It introduced a resolution to eliminate diversity from student assignments at its first meeting on Dec. 1, and after screwing around for almost six months it has now adopted pretty much that same resolution without a single public meeting or committee session where diversity was seriously debated. The motions the majority went through were time-consuming — more time than the five of them anticipated, surely — but that's all they were: motions.
i said the other day that Tedesco chairs the committee that never meets, a.k.a. the student assignment committee. Now, lo and behold, it is scheduled to meet next week — on Tuesday, at 11:30 am — to begin working on a new, post-diversity approach to the issue of which students attend school where.
Watching the board in action for this first half-year, though, and again Tuesday night, I'm struck with this thought: Maybe the majority doesn't intend to draw up a new assignment plan. Maybe, instead, it will continue to do what it's been doing, making assignments ad hoc, guided only by politics and a desire to hold five seats on the board.
I wonder, for starters, whether Tedesco is actually serious about trying to draw up a set of "community assignment zones" that give everybody everything they want while yielding no failing schools, or whether he's just bullsh—ing everybody, possibly including himself, as a distraction from the main event. (Update: "In Context," from the Wake Education Partnership, sees a "grinding battle" ahead. That's a less negative view of things than mine, frankly.)
Or perhaps I'm just not as mathematically adept as he is, and there is an algorithm that will allow all the rich folks to send their kids to their own neighborhood schools without leaving all the poor kids in high-poverty schools. But I'm beginning to suspect that the majority, with Tedesco's witting or unwitting concurrence, intends to keep assigning students without any formal zones or assignment process whatsoever. Meanwhile, they'll let Tedesco operate like the Wizard of Oz, filling the air with enough smoke, mirrors and yellow-brick powerpoint presentations to keep the public hoping for a miracle.
After all, Tedesco — in his big powerpoint three weeks ago that, remember, was not a plan — said it was his view that all assignment zones should be drawn with attention to the concept that everyone else refers to as diversity:
Tedesco: If it's a higher area of affluence," he said then, "make sure it includes some areas of our low-income communities in a broader sense. If it's a higher area of low-income, make sure it reaches far enough to capture some area of affluence and adjust the weighted selection process.
Yet every effort of the school board minority to say the other night, as Tedesco and his majority mates were preparing to bury diversity, that the new policy should be to keep kids close to home if they want to be while also avoiding the creation of high-poverty schools — that there ought to be some balance, in other words, just like Tedesco said — was rejected without comment by the majority.
Except, that is, for Tedesco's stab at using the Brown decision to justify resegregation. I think even he must've been embarrassed by the way that came out.
Meanwhile, the majority took another step toward undermining Wake's magnet schools. The first step, of course, was ditching diversity, a move that threatens to lead to a cutoff of federal funding for the magnet school program. Then Tuesday, the board voted to create a kind of "magnet school lite" program at Broughton High School — Broughton isn't an IB (International Baccacalaureate) magnet school any longer, but it will have an IB "program" that will compete with the new IB magnet, Millbrook High School.
And, despite hard times fiscally, the board "found" $180,000 for the Broughton add-on.
Watch for more moves like this as the board majority "protects" the magnets by duplicating everything they do at other schools, which would effectively "de-magnetize" them without a public hearing, a committee meeting or even a word changed in the magnet schools policy.