by Bob Geary
Effective in the 2012-13 school year, unless it's put off by the new school board when it's seated in December, Wake County has a new student assignment plan. Superintendent Tony Tata's controlled-choice plan was approved by the lame-duck school board 6-2, with the Republican majority solidly in favor (the chair votes only to break ties, but Chairman Ron Margiotta was cheering it on), and Democrats on the board split.
Of greatest interest, Kevin Hill, whose continued tenure on the board depends on his winning a runoff election in three weeks, voted no. So did Keith Sutton. Proving Will Rogers' old saying that he doesn't belong to an organized political party because he's a Democrat, lame-duck Dems Carolyn Morrison and Anne McLaurin abandoned Hill and voted yes.
Sutton, before his no vote, proposed that the board defer action for 30 days to give the three members-elect — Susan Evans, Christine Kushner and Jim Martin — a chance to go over the plan. By then, however, Morrison and McLaurin had announced they were voting yes, regardless that the newly elected trio (of Democrats) were asking them to hold off.
Hill, before casting his no vote, repeated earlier statements that he thinks Tata's plan "is going to be a good plan" and will move the county forward — with some work. But without a stronger student achievement leg, and seats set aside in suburban schools for kids who will apply to be in them coming from Southeast Raleigh, he couldn't support it. "I can't negotiate on the subject of student achievement," he said.
For reasons I've discussed before, a yes vote was the better choice for Hill politically. But Hill, like his fellow Democrats, is not a politician and he doesn't think like one. (Sutton is the exception, and he was thinking like a politician; unfortunately, Morrison and McLaurin either didn't get it that he was giving them a good reason to vote no — with Hill — or they simply couldn't bring themselves to cast a political vote.)
Sure enough, John Tedesco started Facebooking and Tweeting immediately that Hill's vote was partisan, and naysaying. Tedesco, who doubtless will be Margiotta's replacement as chair if Hill is defeated Nov. 8, is putting it out everywhere he can that Hill is not just anti-Tata's plan, he's anti-Tata. Tedesco's conspiracy plot has the Democrats firing the popular school superintendent if they're in the majority — a fictitious campaign, but it's pretty much all Hill's Republican challenger, Heather Losurdo, has.
For her part, Losurdo was at the meeting to share with the TV cameras her change of heart on Tata's plan. Before she finished second to Hill, she was against it because it wasn't a pure enough neighborhood-schools plan. Now, with Margiotta gone and GOP hopes of holding their 5-4 majority pinned to her candidacy, she's for Tata's plan (and for Tata) — seeing that if she & Tedesco are at the controls, maybe they can make it into a pure neighborhood schools plan.
As Tim Simmons, vice president of the Wake Education Partnership, said of Tata's plan — or really, he was talking about any controlled-choice plan of this type — the good thing about it is that it's so flexible. And the bad thing is, it's so flexible.
In the right hands, Tata's plan splits the difference between neighborhood schools (proximity) and diverse schools (achievement), honoring both. In the wrong hands, it can be twisted to put proximity above all else, producing "have" and "have-not" schools within a very few years.
(Or for the Republican perspective, listen to Wake GOP Chair Susan Bryant:
The two Democrats who bravely voted for the plan against enormous pressure from their party are both retiring from the Board. One of the nay votes, Keith Sutton, will be back on the Board next year, having won re-election.
The other nay was Democrat Kevin Hill. He failed go get a majority in the election, and now faces a runoff against Republican Heather Losurdo, who strongly favors neighborhood schools and came out for the Tata Plan.
So the three new Democrats, plus Sutton and Hill, would make a majority, which could undo the plan at any time, or emasculate it by amendment.
That means Heather Losurdo’s election becomes even more critically important than ever. Only if she wins is the new plan secure.
Apparently, emasculation to Bryant is the same as strengthening the plan to me — and to Hill.)
One last thought: If Hill wins, and the new board decides to make changes in the plan, does that mean putting it off for a year?
Tata insisted that his staff needs to get going on the marketing and public information efforts that are key to a choice plan's success — no 30-day delay was permissible or else the whole thing would have to be bumped from 2012-13 to 2013-14.
Whether that was true or not, with the 6-2 vote his staff can go ahead. And no, changes to the plan need not delay it, because set-aside seats aren't a critical issue in year one, though they will be very soon thereafter.
Or, the plan could be delayed a year and it would not make a lot of difference. Remember, Tata's "test drive" indicated that more than 90 percent of parents intend to keep their children in their current school. Thus, if the plan were delayed, its starting point in a year would not be greatly different than its starting point now.