Wake: Vote Likely Will Reshape Schools

Thomas Goldsmith, News & Observer (Raleigh), October 7, 2009

Wake County’s public schools could be headed for a historic remake as candidates critical of the current board and its approach to school diversity swept three districts in Tuesday’s election, and a fourth candidate led in race that likely will end in a runoff.

If seen as a referendum on the board’s policies on diversity, the election showed that the voters who turned out in the four districts at stake decided in large numbers to reject the status quo. The candidates who won outright won by an average of more than 22 percentage points.

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Candidates backed by the Wake Schools Community Alliance won by convincing margins in Cary, in eastern Wake communities including Knightdale and in North Raleigh-Morrisville. Their victories mean that the board’s policies of busing to ensure diversity and mandatory year-round schools will at the very least face opposition from four members on the nine-member panel, a disappointing prospect to those who campaigned for their opponents.

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In Eastern Wake’s District 1, former Wake Forest town commissioner Chris Malone won convincingly over former teacher Rita Rakestraw, one of the election’s most outspoken champions of diversity.

A runoff appeared likely in District 2, which encompasses parts of Garner, Fuquay Varina and Willow Spring. Candidate John Tedesco, a Big Brothers Big Sisters official who campaigned hard for a change in board policies, took nearly half the vote total in the district, but not enough for a clear victory over consultant and retired educator Cathy Truitt, in second place.

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Results in today’s Wake County School Board election will be closely watched for what they reveal about voters’ attitudes toward mandated diversity in the schools.

Although the outcome has countywide implications, the results hinge on voters living in four outlying districts that are picking school board members, with an incumbent running in only one of the races. Opponents of current school board policies such as busing for diversity and mandatory year-round schools already have one ally on the board, Ron Margiotta, and could govern school-system policy with victory in all four districts today.

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The opposition got significant backing from local Republicans, who donated heavily to the principal political action committee that funded their campaigns, the Wake Schools Community Alliance. The group got started early, said member Allison Backhouse.

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The stakes in the election were the highest in years, observers said. The challengers to the status quo bolstered their arguments about the folly of busing not just by reciting tales of long, inconvenient rides for students. They also cited statistics in aid of their position that busing for diversity did not even achieve its goal: a better education for students from low-income families.

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The race also took on a pronounced partisan flavor, despite the officially nonpartisan nature of the race. Democrats largely supported the current board, while the county Republic Party lined up behind the challengers. Demographics seemed to play in the challengers’ favor, as the four districts up for grabs were generally more heavily Republican than the “old Raleigh” districts whose representatives were not up for reelection.

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[Editor’s Note: This story follows up on “Diversity Fight at Center of Wake Schools Race,” which can be read here.]

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