By Cash Michaels
When the Republican-led Wake County School Board came out of its 50-minute closed door session with it attorneys Tuesday morning, it was clear that the majority had a dramatic “come to Jesus” moment.
By a 6-2 vote, which included two of the GOP majority, the board did a 180, and agreed to cooperate with a probe conducted by the school accreditation agency AdvancEd, a probe that just two weeks ago, it fought against tooth and nail. Two of the board’s hardcore conservatives - Chris Malone and Deborah Prickett - still believed that telling AdvancEd to get lost was the proper course, even if it meant putting the accreditation of 24 Wake high schools at risk, and ultimately making the hard earned high diplomas of the system’s graduating seniors virtually worthless to college officials.
But after two weeks of being on the business end of some horrible national publicity - starting with damning Washington Post article alleging that the Wake School Board’s Republicans were backed by the right-wing Tea Party movement, followed by a stinging rebuke by US Education Secretary Arne Duncan for the board’s dismantling of its student socioeconomic diversity policy, and finally culminating in the “reading, ‘ritin and resegregation” mockery of the school board by comedian Stephen Colbert’s on Comedy Central last week, it was clear that, for now, a “no mas” surrender stance was more politically appropriate.
And make no mistake, just as the previous decision to battle AdvancEd with angry, nasty diatribes to stave off an investigation prompted by a NCNAACP racial bias complaint last year was purely political - with board Chairman Ron Margiotta and his faithful lieutenant John Tedesco both alleging that AdvancEd was actually being used as a “weapon” by the NCNAACP to bring down the board - the practical decision, and subsequent 6-2 vote, with Tedesco and fellow Republican Debra Goldman joining the board’s four Democrats in going forward in cooperating with the probe, was also about politics.
Five school board seats - the four Democrats and Margiotta’s Apex-Cary school district - are up for re-election this fall. The stakes are high because, in addition, this is the year that redistricting takes place, meaning that the district lines will be redrawn by the board’s Republican majority.
There is little doubt, observers note, that board Republicans will redraw lines to increase their power, and weaken who they readily call “the opposition,” namely their Democratic colleagues. But all of that will be for naught if, in the process, Chairman Margiotta and company can be tagged with making a mess of a school system - including deaccreditation by AdvancEd; negative findings by US Dept. of Education on two civil rights complaints; falling student achievement numbers in the face of growth and capacity challenges; tough budget considerations in the face of at least a $100 million shortfall; and continued and unrelenting negative press both local and national press outlets.
In addition, the system’s new superintendent, Anthony Tata, is expected to be in place as on next Monday, January 31. The former US Army Brigadier General’s presence brings an additional set of challenges, namely can an accomplished top military man, with only 19 months educational experience, successfully manage the 18th largest school system in the nation with his bosses at each other’s throats, and the nation closely watching for the next misstep.
And can Tata control his alter ego, namely “A.J. Tata,” the military novelist who loves Tea Party favorites Glen Beck and Sarah Palin, and despises Pres. Barack Obama as “an empty suit” who “is not fully vested in the security of this nation?”
The moment Supt. Tata steps in front of a Fox News TV camera, or writes a scurrilous and inaccurate diatribe against the president on a right-wing blog, that will only add fuel to the already blazing fire under the Wake School Board.
It might also excite the board’s conservative base of supporters, it also could outrage the board’s considerable opposition.
If anything, the concession to stop publicly hassling with AdvancED may be just a tactic to slow things down, cool things off, and try to take the thus far intense focus off the board. But the closer the fall school board elections get, the more we can expect the board’s Republicans to actively and openly attack their Democratic colleagues.
The goal - to claim an absolute, impenetrable majority on the board, to continue the stated agenda of establishing community-based neighborhood schools, and perhaps, the racial resegregation of schools that the board’s opponents fear.