By North Carolina's best county school system. Four-year terms. Successful board members must be willing to advocate higher taxes because the county commissioners are notoriously cheap when it comes to the schools and Wake's rapid growth exacerbates the problem. Members must also understand the imperative for diversity in every school--despite the economic segregation of neighborhoods. On the issue of sex education--Shhh! (We don't talk about that around here.)
Only the voters in Districts 1 and 9--East Wake and part of Cary, respectively--have a direct say in the two school board runoff elections. But the outcome is vitally important to everyone in Wake County, where the board's longstanding efforts to maintain socioeconomic integration in all of the system's 119 schools, and to secure adequate funding for new schools, are once again under fire from the political right.
The good news is that the best candidates, Lori Millberg in District 1 and Eleanor Goettee in District 9, came in first in the initial round of voting on Oct. 11--both very nearly winning outright, with almost 50 percent of the vote, against multiple opponents. But that's no reason to be complacent, because the runoffs are wholly different elections. In District 1, the vote will be swelled by local campaigns in all five municipalities represented there (Knightdale, Rolesville, Wake Forest, Wendell and Zebulon). Conversely, in District 9, the vote will be reduced because Cary's local elections were held in October and produced no runoffs.
We once again endorse Millberg and Goettee and urge voters in their districts to get to the polls--because you know what'll happen if you assume they can win without you.
The challengers in these races, church preschool director Tillie Turlington in District 1 and retired business executive Curt Stangler in District 9, strike us as serious and well-intentioned, but on the school integration issue, among others, they're hitting the wrong notes. They're for "neighborhood schools" (Turlington) and "logical reassignments" (Stangler), both of which sound so, well, logical.
But put the two things together, and stir with the organizations that are backing Turlington and Stangler--including Called2Elect, the evangelical religious group, Cary-based Assignment By Choice (ABC) and the Wake Republican Party--and you have a recipe for undermining the integration policy that is at the heart of the county's high academic achievement results across the socioeconomic board.
We like neighborhood schools, too. And reassignments should be predictable a few years out, rather than the annual scramble that seems to take place. But let's face it, Wake County's rapid growth and suburban sprawl--which is anything but socioeconomically integrated--make it difficult to predict where students should be assigned unless you're willing to give up on integration.
The right answer is a balanced approach that mixes neighborhood and magnet schools, and traditional-calendar and year-round schools, to produce the maximum amount of "choice" and as few "assignments" as possible--but consistent with the goal of having no school that is predominantly poor students or, on the other hand, any schools that are all upper-crust.
For sure, it's tricky. But the Wake board--with the help of strong PTA and business backing--has done a pretty good job of it ever since the Wake and Raleigh school systems were merged three decades ago. Good enough, in fact, that The New York Times a few weeks ago, in a front-page story, pointed to Wake County as a model among the nation's large urban school systems, most of which are deeply segregated and lag academically as a result.
It's no surprise, then, that the candidates we prefer, Millberg and Goettee, are also the ones with the longer, deeper experience working with the schools, because they understand the challenge and they accept it. Millberg, a lawyer and former assistant district attorney (in Houston, Texas) who now manages a firm in which her husband is a partner, has held leadership positions in numerous PTAs and school advisory boards. Goettee, a former teacher, is now and adjunct college instructor at NCSU and Meredith and serves as executive director of the N.C. Professional Teaching Standards Commission. Their commitment to quality education cannot be questioned.
Goettee, who faces the ABC group head-on in Cary, calls the goal of neighborhood schools "desirable, but unrealistic" because "neighborhood schools would take us back to homogeneous student populations, [and] research shows that schools with large numbers of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds have difficulty retaining teachers and are less likely to attract master teachers."
Lest she be seen as a one-issue candidate, however, it should be said that Goettee is primarily interested in helping teachers help students. At one point in the campaign, she exclaimed that she longs for the day when board candidates will be asked for details about "quality education," not just how many schools are needed and where.
Millberg, too, emphasizes that District 1 is unique in the Wake system because it comprises five small towns with their own "history and community spirit" that should be preserved in the mix of policies. She's against long-distance busing of students. But she's pro-integration in a way that Turlington, sadly, isn't.
And on the school funding issues, too, Goettee and Millberg, though not advocating tax hikes in advance, are aware that the county's spending--thanks to tight-fisted county commissioners--hasn't kept pace with school needs. Nor are the taxpayers stretched, as Millberg notes, since Wake is second among the counties in ability to pay (incomes) but 11th in actual school funding.
Stangler and Turlington, meanwhile, talk around the school funding issues--as might be expected, given that they accepted the support of the anti-tax Wake County Taxpayers Association, led by ultra-conservative state Rep. Russell Capps.