Nine months of crusading

Nine months of crusading

- in Fitzsimon File

It has now been nine months since the Gang of Five now running the Wake County Board of Education held its first meeting and immediately launched its efforts to dismantle one of the best urban school systems in the United States.

It was clear that day in December that the new majority had carefully planned that first meeting in secret, complete with resolutions no one else had seen to begin the process of ending the system's nationally recognized diversity policy.

That's where the planning ended. The members of the Gang of Five have been flailing to come up with a new assignment plan ever since, bringing in outside experts and then ignoring them, promising to provide extra funding to newly created high poverty schools, then denying that any high poverty schools would be created.

The almost weekly twists and turns by Gang of Five Chair Ron Margiotta and his chief deputy John Tedesco have reinforced the impression that their mission was purely ideological from the start. They wanted to end the diversity policy, but still have nothing concrete in mind to replace it.

The latest idea is dividing the county into 16 zones with wide disparities in composition of race and income levels, creating poor zones and zones, white zones and African-American zones, high achieving zones and struggling zones.

But that's not the final plan. Tedesco said there's still "layering" to do with magnets and preferences, making it hard to believe the final product will not be an indecipherable web that confuses parents and students and throws the system into chaos.

Though the Gang of Five bristles when you mention it, they are trying to radically remake an assignment system that the vast majority of parents in Wake County like. The parent survey conducted by the new board last spring found that 94.5 percent of parents were satisfied with their child's school.

It is a safe bet that more than 5.5 percent of students will be shuffled around under whatever scheme Tedesco and his fellow Gang of Fivers eventually settle on.  And the survey is not the only thing that the majority wants to ignore.

More than 90 percent of students in the current assignment plan attend a school within five miles of their home.  That's part of why parents are satisfied.

A recent profile of Margiotta in the News & Observer said he got involved in school board politics when he moved to the area and was "aghast that his grandson had not been assigned to the closest school."  Every child cannot be assigned to the closest school under any plan in an area that continues to grow like Wake County. 

Common sense tells you that and a report from the Wake Education Partnership earlier this year proved it conclusively, though the Gang of Fivers dismissed it as quickly as they forgot the results of the parent survey they commissioned.

Recent news coverage also provided a reminder of the real issue at stake for some parents who support the efforts of the board majority to dismantle the current system. The News & Observer quoted a North Raleigh resident who said that when people buy a house in a neighborhood they don't want someone to bring students that they perceive to be "lesser" into their schools.

Now it looks like the "lessers" will be concentrated in their own schools if Tedesco and Margiotta get their way.  Margiotta has said before that he wants more than zones, he wants to break up the Wake County Schools into a group of smaller systems like they do in his native New Jersey.

That would keep the "lessers" even further away, out of sight, out of mind and out of the area of legal responsibility. Let them take care of themselves. 

But for now the zone plan will do, if Tedesco and company can ever come up with a scheme that comes close to making sense logistically.

The chaotic scramble for a plan is the latest evidence that the Gang of Five has been lost since they fulfilled their ideological objective of dismantling the diversity policy.

And it's another reminder that governing is much different than crusading. 

About the author

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.