by Bob Geary
That's an excellent introduction to a column I'm writing for the Indy — and will post here tomorrow — on what the various candidates for county commissioners seats have actually said about the school board majority. Here's a preview: The four Democratic candidates are very critical of the board majority, thought they vary a bit as to whether the commissioners can do anything about it. And the four Republicans? The first sentence from each of them is, "I support the school board" — meaning the majority.
Three other Democratic commissioners are not up for re-election until 2012. One, former Raleigh City Councilor James West, is brand new and hasn't said anything about the school board yet to my knowledge. Betty Lou Ward hasn't said very much. But the third, Commissioner Stan Norwalk, has been a persistent, outspoken and piercing critic of the school board majority and its policies in every forum he can find. The fact is, Norwalk's been speaking out all year against Board Chair Margiotta & Co., though he's gotten next-to-zero attention in the media for his efforts.
Norwalk is out today with a major statement, "Wake Schools and the County's Future," that is worth your time. It's not incendiary, something Norwalk thinks the board majority is guilty of being. Rather, it's a pretty straightforward telling, offered more in sadness than anger, of what the new majority could've done to improve a good but imperfect school system ... and what it has done instead.
His conclusion: "Bit by bit the old WCPSS, which most viewed as successful, is being dismantled," Norwalk writes ...
"Revolutionary changes are offered without feasibility analysis or financial plans. Political patronage and positioning appears to be behind major expenditures.
"Contradictory statements are made about the incendiary issue of diversity, the new assignment policy and the potential emergence of high poverty schools.
"Laudably, the current emphasis of the BOE majority is about advancing academics among disadvantaged children. But this does not appear to be how the BOE is spending their time or resources or the focus of the search for superintendent."
Here it is in its entirety. I'll start it above the fold and continue it below —
Wake Schools and the County's Future
The issues surrounding our public schools are of importance to all in local government. The health of our school system will impact students and families as well as countywide issues of jobs, property values, taxes and our quality of life.
Two years ago Wake County had a school system that was highly regarded both nationally and by the majority of Wake citizens.
Republicans and Democrats worked together on the BOE to resolve the problems. The BOE focused on policy. The day-to-day operations were left to a highly qualified superintendent and staff.
Norwalk on the schools, continued:
Wake was the only large urban system in the State to have a diversity policy. This policy was widely applauded across the nation. Our diversified magnet schools won numerous national awards.
Closing the educational gap between middle class and low-income minorities was a constant focus of school officials and the BOE. Over several years the gap began to close.
Our superintendent of schools was named National Superintendent of the Year. His was highly regarded because he would only consider new initiatives if they met high standards and advanced education. He was in total command of a complex budget and understood how to deal with the financial restraints and opportunities dictated by the State, County and Federal government. In 2006, the public showed its support of his leadership by passing a $970 million bond authorization for school construction that was attached to a tax increase.
The BOE and School staff was well aligned in seeking constant improvement with per student financial support for education among the lowest in the state and nation. An emphasis on keeping all schools balanced and “healthy” resulted in high capacity utilization rates and allowed construction costs and property taxes to be minimized.
Graduation rates and test scores, while short of #1 among school districts in the state, were well above the State average and substantially higher than other large systems.
The favorable national publicity was a boon for economic development and job formation. The County’s low tax rate, the lowest among urbanized counties in NC and far lower than the national average, was a further plus for economic development. The cost efficient management of the school system was major factor in keeping taxes low.***
But the school system was not perfect. Among the issues:
* Frequent reassignments due to the dynamic growth of the county angered parents. Parents wanted greater stability. The implementation of a three-year assignment stability plan was insufficient to moderate the tsunami of change offered by the new BOE majority.
* Year round schools, adopted as a means of reducing construction costs, were a major irritant to some middle class parents because some wanted summers off and some families had children on different tracks.
Busing, despite being a key to keeping utilization rates high and construction costs low, was widely unpopular and was improperly labeled as diversity driven.
* Some parents in outlying area of the County felt they were under-represented; i.e. had less access to themed programs offered in magnet schools.
* Faced with a higher than average growth rate among low-income non-English speaking students, progress in closing the achievement gap see-sawed but resumed its upward course over the last two years. Again, limited financial resources for education were a major factor. Operating expenditures from all sources have declined for years relative to growth and inflation.
* The school system fumbled the ball in 2006 in reacting to the State’s move in tightening test standards. The Superintended and BOE concluded this was due to a loss of focus and alignment among staff and teachers and took corrective action through the Curriculum Audit.
* The limited financial resources from the State and County took its toll. The State’s unwillingness to allow alternatives to the property tax, e.g. impact fees, for funding school construction and education added to the problem. As a result of financing restraints in new school construction and dealing with a fast growing population, Wake became #1 in the state in the use of trailers. Additionally, per pupil funding for education (all sources) was in the lower 25% of all NC school districts.***
Fast forward two years and the election of a new BOE majority.
The citizens of Wake County have been highly polarized by the issues raised by the new BOE majority. Citizen confidence in their public schools has been eroded and future public support is endangered.
* The BOE majority has become an appendage to the Republican Party’s right wing core. Chairman Margiotta has recently threatened board members who oppose him for defeat in the 2011 election. Redistricting to eliminate opposition is on the horizon.
* Chairman Margiotta’s closeness to Bob Luddy, a leader of the anti-public school faction and a developer of private schools, has raised ethical issues and questions about behind the scenes control of the BOE. Art Pope’s e-mail to the Chair complimenting him for the BOE campaign strategy adds to this concern. Pope is the leading contributor to right-wing initiatives in the State. Like Luddy, he promotes getting government out of schools. Pope and Luddy were the largest contributors in the BOE election campaign.
* The growing opposition includes: the AdvanceEd high school accreditation group, a coalition of citizen organizations headed up by Great Schools in Wake, the editorial page of the N&O, the NAACP, former school board members and numerous parents and educators. Most recently, the Greater Raleigh of Commerce has chosen to develop an independent, balanced assignment plan.
* The Wake Board of Commissioners, on a party line vote, passed a resolution condemning the creation of high poverty schools. The Raleigh City Council passed an identical resolution.
* A major, highly expensive court case regarding diversity is on the horizon.
* Protesting citizens and leaders of opposition groups have not been treated with respect.
* Many citizens feel that the BOE majority has been making decision without regard to cost and with emphasis on political positioning and patronage. The multi-million Federal Magnet Grant has been lost due to abandonment of the diversity policy.
* The new BOE majority has taking charge of staff functions, e.g. John Tedesco rather than staff is developing new assignment plans.
* Major policy decisions are not transparent — even to other members of the BOE. The agenda is controlled by the majority with little opportunity for minority members to put forward their issues.
* Superintendent Burns and the head of growth management and assignment were forced out. Presently, there are no fully empowered replacements. The position of Chief Academic Officer has been eliminated. Senior staff members have been intimidated and demoralized by both the BOE majority and their supporters. The “blame-game” is rampant with no sense of where the “buck stops”.
* Revolutionary changes are offered without feasibility analysis or financial plans. Political patronage and positioning appears to be behind major expenditures
* Contradictory statements are made about the incendiary issue of diversity, the new assignment policy and the potential emergence of high poverty schools.
* Laudably, the current emphasis of the BOE majority is about advancing academics among disadvantaged children. But this does not appear to be how the BOE is spending their time or resources or the focus of the search for superintendent.***
Most citizens would agree that achieving higher educational quality while minimizing taxes, maintaining diversity and further consideration of family issues is the nub of the debate.
Bit by bit the old WCPSS, which most viewed as successful, is being dismantled. Its future is uncertain. Most stakeholders abhor uncertainty. At stake long term is the future of Wake County, i.e. growth in jobs, property values and the quality of our lives.
In the short-term is the future of our children, who are innocent bystanders. Constructive leadership, compromise and creative solutions are essential from all public officials.