Hell hath no fury like a parent reassigned.
The annual reassignment mess in the Wake County school system has turned families' lives upside down year after year. Parents' frustration—mostly in the suburban parts of the county, and especially booming western Wake—has made them determined to do something, anything, to change the situation.
With the May primary less than two months away, Wake parents and local politicos have seized on a proposal to change the way citizens elect the Wake school board, from a district to at-large. The idea is gaining traction among municipal governments in western Wake, while bringing charges and counter-charges of partisanship at the state level. Candidates running to represent western Wake in the legislature are finding that the school board election has become a campaign issue.
Currently, the Wake County School Board is elected by district: Each voter can pick one representative on the board of nine. The new proposal is for residency districts, in which candidates live in particular districts but are voted on by the entire county.
There are reasons not to change to at-large voting: It could violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965, according to the General Assembly's legal staff. And running at-large in Wake, a county larger than many congressional districts, is expensive, which means even the non-partisan school board race could become a magnet for special-interest campaign money.
The issue is trickling up from the carpool lanes of Cary and Apex to the cinderblock hallways of Jones Street.
"That seems to be the only thing I hear about," says state Rep. Ty Harrell, a Democrat running for re-election in District 41. Constituents are constantly e-mailing Harrell, he says, asking him to support legislation introduced last year by state Rep. Nelson Dollar and state Sen. Richard Stevens, both Cary Republicans, which would create at-large voting for school board and move the election to even-numbered years.
The bills never made it through committee; most Democrats from the Wake delegation oppose them, citing concerns about minority disenfranchisement.
Joe Ciulla, a father of two in Cary, is among the frustrated parents dissatisfied with the Democrats' response. Ciulla says he doesn't believe the current school board will take his concerns seriously. His Web site, TakeOurSchoolsBack.org, promotes the at-large voting proposal and includes a section on legislative candidates and their positions on the at-large school board proposal.
It doesn't make sense, Ciulla says, that he can vote for each county commissioner seat and the majority of the Cary town council, but only one school board member. "What the board of education controls that the town government doesn't is the educational fate of my children. That's more important to me than the taxes I pay or the property value of my house," he says. "So in my mind, they have far more impact on my life than my town's own government. They should be accountable."
However, at least one candidate is willing to strike a compromise between the two voting methods. Jack Nichols, who is running for Janet Cowell's state senate seat, announced his plan this week to overhaul the way the Board of Education and the Board of Commissioners in Wake are elected. He proposes to combine district and at-large voting and align the districts of both boards to make them identical. He also proposes moving both elections to odd years, instead of staggering them odd and even.
Nichols, a former Wake commissioner, says running for that office the same year the president, U.S. Senate and governor are elected means local issues can be drowned out. "Voters will never hear the debate about education issues at the local level—there are just too many candidates out there asking for attention."
Keeping some district representation could address the Voting Rights Act concern, he says. "I do know one thing: If we did what Nelson [Dollar]'s proposing, we'd be putting ourselves right in the middle of a voting rights lawsuit."
To some political observers, the Democrats' lack of support for Dollar's plan seems like blatant party politics.
"I think the Democrats on the school board have convinced the Democrats in the state legislature that they don't want to have to run countywide," says Don Frantz, a Cary councilor elected last fall. A Republican, he says school issues account for two-thirds of his correspondence with voters, although town council has no say in school matters. "Unfortunately, this is partisanship at its finest."
But from the Democratic legislators' point of view, Dollar and Stevens are the guilty ones. No local bill will pass the legislature without near-unanimous support from the local delegation. Introducing such a bill knowing it will die in committee is viewed as an aggressively partisan act.
State Rep. Deborah Ross, a Democrat who represents Raleigh, calls the proposal "divisive." She cites the advice she received from the General Assembly's bill drafting director, Gerry Cohen. He says the basis for the Voting Rights Act concern is a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said at-large voting in the legislature for Wake and two other counties disenfranchised minorities by reducing minority representation.
"People then say, 'Well, we elect our county commissioners at-large,'" Cohen says. Two of the board of commissioner's seven members are African-American. (Also, by Ciulla's count, 86 of the state's 100 county school districts elect some or all of their members at-large.) "All I can say is, no one's litigated that."
Nonetheless, municipal governments in Cary, Apex, Holly Springs, Rolesville and Wake Forest are expected to include some version of it in their legislative agendas for the legislative session, which begins in May; Garner already has.
For Harrell, one of four Wake legislators with kids in public schools, the partisan charge rings false. He says he still wants to listen to both sides of the argument. "My door and my ear are always open. There are people who are out there pandering on this issue right now. I'm not doing that. It's not how I legislate."
Dollar introduced the bill last session, he says, "for the purpose or beginning the conversation." He says he doesn't necessarily expect unanimity in the short session this year. "I'm confident that over time we will be able to put together hopefully strong bipartisan support among the delegation as members see just how strongly parents feel about this, and as the municipalities weigh in."
The impulse to change the political status quo is strong. Part of what unites local officials across party lines is the feeling of being ignored by Raleigh politicians.
Apex Mayor Keith Weatherly, an at-large supporter who's been beating the drum on school issues for years, bluntly articulates a feeling shared even by more demure Dems in western Wake: that those elitists in Raleigh don't care about the reassignment woes of suburbanites and small-town dwellers. "You don't see any inside-the-Beltline schools being switched to a mandatory year-round calendar," he says.
School board chair Rosa Gill is an African American representing predominantly black east Raleigh. Gill is unfazed by the notion of at-large elections. "It's not that it would disenfranchise minority participation or a minority candidate running," she says. It's just that minority candidates would have to appeal to the majority of voters—and 70 percent of Wake voters don't have children in the system, she says, so their biggest concerns are with keeping taxes low. "My question is, How does having school board candidates running countywide correct the problem they're seeking to correct?"
At the root of reassignment, busing and year-round schools is the problem of capacity. Wake's school system grows by about 4,000 students per year. There's not enough money to build new schools at that pace. "As long as there's growth," Gill says, "there's going to be reassignment, because growth does not come in little bitty neat packages."
But Gill says that for all the media attention reassignment gets, only about 15 percent of the parents she hears from are concerned about the problem. "As a school board member, I'm not hearing that many folks dissatisfied."
Gill is clearly not hearing the same people lobbying Harold Weinbrecht.
In his online journal, the Cary mayor reports losing sleep over the school controversies. He took heat last month for not voting in favor of a task force to study the problem, even though a similar study had been conducted in 2003 to no effect. He even wrote a public letter of apology to the school board over the council's vote. "We're not the decision-makers, so we're in the role of trying to influence. To influence, you have to make and keep relationships," he explains.
At a deeper level, Weinbrecht says, there's a difference of opinion between the school board and local communities over how best to implement diversity—Cary parents value diversity, he says, but don't believe it should remain the school system's highest priority in reassignment even if it trumps all other concerns.
That's why Weinbrecht has come around to the idea of some version of at-large. "The biggest change that is wanted by most of our citizens is a philosophical change," he says, "and that's not going to come with influence; that's going to come at the ballot box."
Weinbrecht says he supports a compromise proposal in which five of the nine seats are at-large, while four are in districts. "I will personally not support anything that's partisan," he says. He knows it will be a hard sell to his fellow Democrats. "I don't know if we'll ever get Ross and [Rep. Jennifer] Weiss to change their minds, but they're willing to listen to us."
Weinbrecht says he's tried to avoid pouring gasoline on the fire——but the fire's still burning.
Parents like Ciulla contact him constantly. "These people are panicking and they're in a crisis state because their families are being disrupted," he says. "What's hard is you've got people out there being totally political and giving them false hope," Weinbrecht says, "talking up things that I know in my heart are absolutely unrealistic."
Creating a separate school system in Cary, for example, is extremely unlikely to get legislative approval. "It just makes me sick to have to stand up there and tell them, 'This is never going to happen.' They say, 'I voted for you, how can you not support us?' I say, 'I am supporting you. I'm telling you the truth. These other people are just using you.'"