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Wake County goes to hell



Del Burns' abrupt resignation as Wake County's superintendent of schools made things clear, if they weren't already: The county is in crisis. The Wake school system, lauded as among the best in the nation and an engine for the county's growth, is in mortal danger from the newly elected school board majority and its right-wing backers.

And just in case Wake's more centrist and progressive leaders on the board were thinking that Burns could hold the fort without them (and if that's not what they were thinking, why were they so quiet when all hell was breaking loose?), they were wrong. He couldn't. The new majority wasn't listening to anything he said. But they weren't firing him either.

No, the five in the majority, led by Board Chairman Ron Margiotta, were content to use Burns as a prop—a Potemkin frontman—in a power play disguised as a deliberative review, with his input, of school assignment policies.

That's what Burns meant when he resigned in protest Feb. 15 and said, in one of a series of interviews he gave two days later, "I will not allow myself to be a pawn in political gamesmanship." The new majority's policies, Burns warned, if allowed to take effect, would balkanize Wake's schools, chopping the unified system into separate "have" and "have-not" subdistricts—some 20 in all. High-poverty areas, or zones, would have high-poverty schools, despite extensive research about how that hurts the children forced to attend them.

"I could not in good conscience implement the majority's policies," he said.

Burns' resignation, effective June 30, was a clarion call for citizens to rally to the schools' defense. But rather than give the majority members pause, his resignation both infuriated them and caused them to throw off all pretense of moving carefully on assignment policies. They talked about immediately firing Burns for insubordination. And they rushed onto the agenda for their March 2 meeting a resolution calling for the subdistricts—termed "community assignment zones"—to be drawn up in time to start using them in the 2011-12 school year.

Meanwhile, the Democratic majority on the Wake County Board of Commissioners reacted with—well, the impotence of the commissioners just made the crisis worse. Finally, Wake Democratic Chairman Jack Nichols moved to fill the county's leadership vacuum with a new candidate: Jack Nichols.

The majority's plan to eliminate diversity as a factor in student assignments and adopt a strictly "neighborhood" (or "community") schools approach would overturn a political consensus that's existed in Wake since the county's and Raleigh's schools were merged with the onset of integration in 1976.

After the merger, says John Gilbert, a retired N.C. State University professor who served on the school board for 16 years, Democratic and Republican members worked together to balance the two factors. They agreed, Gilbert says, that diverse student populations were critically important, and no school should be overwhelmed with low-income students. But neither should students be forced to travel long distances on a school bus.

An award-winning program of magnet schools, started in the '80s, helped meet both goals, Gilbert says, by inducing students to travel voluntarily from suburban households to Raleigh's inner-city magnets.

That mix of policies allowed Wake, in Gilbert's time, to avoid having schools with more than 40 percent of students eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program. As the number of low-income students (especially Latino students) has increased from 20 percent countywide to 31 percent, and the county's suburban sprawl has exacerbated residential segregation by incomes, that target has slipped.

According to county figures, there are currently nine elementary schools where more than 60 percent of students are free- and reduced-lunch eligible. But the other 150 schools have fewer eligible students, and no school rates as overwhelmed by low-income kids.

Gilbert, a Democrat, ticks off a list of moderate Republicans who served with him on the board: Judy Hoffman, Roxie Cash, Henry Knight, Charlotte Martin, and Bill Fletcher, a staunch conservative who nonetheless backed diversity to the hilt. "There was never, never a partisan vote," Gilbert says.

The consensus, Gilbert adds, was shared by Raleigh's business leaders, because they viewed good schools as vital to the city's economy. They helped defend it against the rise, in the mid-'90s, of sharp-edged conservative politics in Raleigh and around the nation. (Think Newt Gingrich.)

Led by Tom Fetzer, a Jesse Helms protégé who was elected Raleigh mayor in 1993, the GOP's right wing began fielding candidate slates in the school board elections, Gilbert says. They ran, Helms-style, against "forced busing," code for integration efforts that discomfited whites. Their goal was to wrest Republican-friendly districts from moderates like Hoffman and Cash. They never won.

Indeed, the consensus was intact a year ago, according to Bill McNeal and Tom Oxholm.

Their book, A School District's Journey to Excellence: Lessons from Business and Education, is a text for school officials and board members. Published early in 2009, it recounts how Wake's schools, though not perfect, "gained national recognition for the quality of their educational program."

McNeal, the African-American insider, was superintendent of Wake schools before Burns. Based on Wake's achievements, McNeal was named "National Superintendent of the Year" by the American Association of School Administrators in 2004.

Oxholm, the white Republican accountant, served on the school board from 1999 to 2003. His first brush with the schools, though, came after the '94 GOP landslide put a conservative bloc in control of the Wake Commissioners board. Oxholm was part of a group sent by the commissioners to expose the schools "as wasteful with taxpayers' dollars."

Far from finding waste, Oxholm determined that the Wake schools were efficiently managed and, given the county's wealth and low taxes, a bargain. In fact, he and McNeal wrote, the biggest problem with the schools was chronic underfunding by the commissioners, Democrats and Republicans alike, especially for the new schools needed to keep pace with Wake's exploding population.

In his foreword, former Gov. Jim Hunt declares, "The Wake County Public School System is among the best in the nation because of great leadership by some courageous school board leaders and educators ... and great support from community and business people in the county."

Written in 2009, Hunt's words read today like they're from another era—or at least from a different battleground.

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