by Bob Geary
The finale of last night's District 8 school board debate was stunning. Out of his New Jersey past, the incumbent School Board Chair Ron Margiotta suddenly declared that funding for the Wake school system is "woefully inadequate." His opponent, Susan Evans, had the last word, and she used her closing statement to say that if elected, she'll "put politics aside" and "champion a highly efficient, balanced school system."
When Evans finished, the room literally exploded with applause — the first of the night. The moderator, a no-nonsense type, had warned the audience not to react, not even to breathe, until the end. So it was hard to tell whether the spontaneous reaction was for Evans alone or for Evans and Margiotta. My take, watching from the front of the room, was that it was for Evans, whose concluding syllable was still on her lips when the crowd erupted.
Interesting. This was in Apex, which is assumed to be a Republican stronghold — a Margiotta stronghold. There were 150 people in the room, and of course they were not a random sample of the school board electorate. Still, it looked to me like at least 100 were Evans' supporters, whether from the outset or after they'd heard both candidates.
From the surprised reaction on Margiotta's face, I believe it looked that way to him too.
(By the way, if you want to watch the debate, it's now online courtesy of the N.C. Center for Voter Education, partners with WakeUP Wake County and the League of Women Voters of Wake County.)
But let's go back. Margiotta thinks school funding is woefully inadequate? Well, talk is cheap, and throughout the debate Margiotta took full advantage of its low price.
Programs for gifted students are inadequate, he said. We need more vocational education. We need more magnet-like programs at non-magnet schools. We need more STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs — every school should have one. Every middle school has foreign language courses; soon, every elementary school will have them too, if Ron Margiotta has anything to say about it.
Magnet schools in Raleigh get the whipped cream, Margiotta said. (But he supports them :-)
Suburban schools get the broccoli — but it's time they got some whipped cream too.
That's what he said.
And then he said he's from New Jersey, where per-pupil spending in the schools is often 2X what it is here.
He said it, not me.
It was an amazing display for a Republican who never objected as his party cut state aid to schools in the General Assembly ... a Republican who, when asked to support a request to the county commissioners that they not cut school aid per pupil, voted no ... and remember, the county commissioners are his fellow Republicans.
School funding means taxes. Republicans oppose taxes. Margiotta is a Republican. And he is no exception, nor are his four running mates on the Republican slate for school board seats, nor are the four other Republicans elected to the school board in 2009. Ask them how they'll pay for something, and out comes the magic "wasted spending" pot they plan to draw on.
Margiotta bragged that the Republican-majority school board cut no teaching jobs this year despite — he said — cutbacks in state and federal aid. What he neglected to explain is that a one-time, $27 million federal Education Jobs grant — a form of stimulus funding that his fellow Republicans in Congress opposed — saved Wake from needing to cut teaching jobs. But it didn't save the teachers assistants who were fired, or the assistant principals who were fired, or the central staff, including secretaries, who were fired.
Superintendent Tony Tata has described next year's budget as looking like a $27 million cliff that Wake will fall off unless the county or the state — or Congress — comes to its senses about school funding. Good luck with that.
But say this for Margiotta: He resisted every invitation to pledge, or even hint, that he would support higher taxes. And he ducked when asked about a bond issue to build the new schools Wake desperately needs. If you vote for Margiotta, you're voting for someone who clearly sees the needs, but is just as clear that tax money won't be paying for them.
Tata's looking for foundation grants, Margiotta said.
He added: "We had better find some outside funding."
Because there won't be any inside funding on his watch.
"We are in desperate need of more resources," Susan Evans said, and while I don't think she said in so many words that she'll be for higher taxes — no candidate ever says that — she did say that, unlike Margiotta, she would've asked the county commissioners this year to keep per-pupil funding level and not cut it. Doing so would've required a small tax hike.
Evans added, "I would really like to work to change the culture of that," by which I believe she meant the culture that says great schools can be had on the cheap and new taxes are never needed if you use the magic word "waste."
Answering questions about Wake's student assignment policies, Evans repeatedly made the point that maintaining diversity in some form — she called it balance — saves the taxpayers money.
Western Wake has been plagued by student reassignments over the past decade, which Margiotta & his GOP mates never tire of blaming on diversity — or busin' (try to say it like George Wallace used to, hitting the "bu" hard).
Evans' response? We opened 51 new schools in a 10-year period and added close to 50,000 students, a whole lot of them in Apex, Holly Springs, Fuquay-Varina and the western part of Cary — in western Wake, that is. So of course students were reassigned. If they weren't, the new schools wouldn't have been full, the old schools wouldn't needed more portable classrooms — and it would've cost more money.
Yes, some students were assigned to schools to maintain diverse student populations — a mix of kids from richer and poorer families — in every school. Again, doing so kept all the schools full and in demand, unlike Charlotte, where they dropped diversity and soon needed to close inner-city schools because families had abandoned them.
Evans said the number-one priority for a new assignment plan should be stability — not reassigning kids once they've started in an elementary, a middle or a high school. Parents should have a choice, and proximity should be a factor, but so should "balance" — with the new "balance" factor being student achievement levels rather than socioeconomic status.
It doesn't cost more to do it with balance, she argued. it costs less than if you create more "high-needs" schools where kids are disadvantaged and their achievement levels are low.
The best example of this, Evans said, is the new Walnut Creek Elementary School in Southeast Raleigh, which opened this year with — thanks to the new no-diversity Republican school board — a nearly all-black student population. About 80 percent of the kids qualify for free or reduced lunches because of low family incomes.
Because Walnut Creek is considered a "high-needs" school, and because the Republican school board had said up and down they'd put extra money into high-needs schools and show the world that diversity isn't necessary, Walnut Creek was ticketed for an extra $1 million this year. It was supposed to have 800 students, with class sizes of 20 or less.
But that promise had evaporated in a month's time after Walnut Creek opened with 900 students — pushing class sizes up.
Tata is pledging to bring forward a student assignment plan for board consideration on October 4. It will include stability, proximity, and achievement (balance/diversity) in a parental-choice model, Tata says.
Evans said there should be balance. She added that stability, proximity and balance should be readily achieved, at least initially, in a parental-choice plan since more than 90 percent of parents who responded to Tata's "test drive" indicated they'll keep their kids in the school they're in now.
That is, schools with students assigned with an eye toward balance.
On balance, Margiotta was a firm no. The plan he will support, he said twice, will have proximity as its most important factor, along with stability and choice. Period. "I am a believer in neighborhood schools," he said.
Evans quoted Tata as saying that the Margiotta approach — a "pure" neighborhood-schools plan with proximity the main factor and no effort made to maintain balanced student bodies — will produce between 17 and 25 additional high-needs schools like Walnut Creek.
Such schools would need extra money — money taken from the suburban schools, presumably, and all those nifty programs Margiotta's promising to deliver — or else, if they don't get it, kids will be hurt, parents will abandon the "have-not" schools, and it'll be Charlotte all over again, Evans said.
Meaning, it'll be expensive.
Unlike talk, which is cheap.