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By Cash Michaels
He’s been representing Apex, Holly Springs and parts of Cary on the Wake County School Board since 2003, but didn’t get to lead the board until 2009, when four likeminded conservatives joined Ron Margiotta, and elected him chairman.
Since then, the retired New Jersey businessman has moved forcefully in the past two years to reshape the Wake County Public School System the way he feels it should be - governed by parental choice and neighborhood schools. And along the way, Margiotta has wielded a partisan power and control that many of his critics, and even some of his fellow Republicans, say reveals a ruthless side to a leader who demands unfettered loyalty to a single agenda.
But next Tuesday, Oct. 11th, Ron Margiotta is once again at the mercy of voters in his predominantly upper-middle class District 8, and by all accounts, and unlike past elections, it may not be a cakewalk. As opposition mailers attest, Margiotta is being judged not only by the quality of his representation of the district, but his leadership of the controversial Republican majority school board.
“Ron Margiotta forced the Tea Party agenda on our schools,” bellows a full-color mailer from a 527 group called Common Sense Matters.
He is being directly challenged by Democrat Susan Evans, who has accused Margiotta of “creating community chaos;” “damaging the school system’s once stellar national reputation; supporting costly decisions to taxpayers (like moving from the system-owned headquarters in North Raleigh to leased property in Cary); “recklessly” risking Wake high schools’ accreditation; being disrespectful to non-Republican school board members and the public; and “focusing more on advancing an ideological agenda [rather] than building consensus and finding solutions.”
A close look at the chairman’s record, and feedback from some in his district, shows that Margiotta may be in the fight of his life politically.
And he knows it.
“I think you know me better than to believe that “fear” is any part of my decision to not meet with you at this time,” the school board chairman responded to a Carolinian reporter last Christmas Eve when asked for an interview.
Margiotta didn’t even bother to respond to another Carolinian request for an interview for this story, realizing that unlike many of the conservative outlets on which he frequently appears, he can’t control what The Carolinian prints.
Thus, he’s able to boast of creating a “better foundation for better Wake County Schools” by discarding Wake’s previous socioeconomic diversity policy, which he blames opponent Susan Evans for still upholding.
While Margiotta, who has well documented connections to right-wing Tea Party businessmen Art Pope and Bob Luddy (once serving on the board of Luddy’s private school while serving on the board), claims “a record of accomplishments” in student achievement on his campaign mailers, and on emails from his loyal board vice chairman John Tedesco, critics, and even fellow board members, counter that at best, the hard work and investments previous Wake School Boards put in prior to 2009 are now baring fruit in higher graduation rates and national honors.”
“Graduation rates? They took claim for that, but the data shows that was 2008,” Keith Sutton, who represents District 4, told The Carolinian, “prior to [Margiotta’s Republican majority] coming on the board. How they can lay claim to that is just unfounded.”
Though Margiotta claims that, as chairman of the school board, he’s worked hard, “to develop a budget which resulted in no loss of teacher positions,” and Wake Supt. Tata, Margiotta’s handpicked choice, did give system teachers a one-time $500.00 bonus as well, there are growing reports that Wake teachers, principals and administrators have not appreciated what they feel has generally been a dismissive attitude towards them from both Margiotta and Tata.
“There are claims of institutional bias and institutional prejudices towards certain groups of children, be they black or brown, that we try to hide them, and not give them our best,” District 3 school board member Kevin Hill, a former principal, told The Carolinian, confirming that he is hearing from disgruntled Wake teachers and administrators.
“Of course we’re going to go ahead and go with this policy [because] we want to keep our jobs,” Hill says administrators have told him just in the past week. “What I’m hearing is that the morale is very low, and that principals and teachers are afraid to speak up. That’s not a good way to run a school system.”
“We need to thank our teachers for what they do everyday.”
Susan Evans, Margiotta’s opponent, says as she walks in District 8 neighborhoods, she’s hearing people tell her that while many were, at first, pleased with the change in school board in 2009, they did expect the divisiveness and petty squabbles that Margiotta and company seemed to promote.
“They’ve told me that they’re very disappointed with Ron’s leadership, his bullying style at the table, insulting remarks he’s made to members of the public (like, “Here come the animals from their cages” when audience members disagreed with a speaker), and this was not the kind of change they were looking for. They’re not happy.”
Apparently, Margiotta has also angered close supporters.
Last week, The Carolinian reported that while researching Margiotta’s campaign reports on file with the Wake Board of Elections, a blistering November 4, 2009 resignation letter to the “Citizens for Ron Margiotta” campaign, from longtime campaign treasurer Phyllis Bryson, was found.
Letters of resignation from a political campaign committee are considered public record.
“Ron,” Mrs. Bryson began, “Due to political, philosophical and ethical differences, I am resigning as your treasurer, effective immediately.”
Mrs. Bryson continued, “Many people have reported your attempts to influence them to the detriment of my family. I am stunned. It is difficult to believe that you are totally innocent, as you claim.”
In a phone interview subsequent to that story, Bryson, a registered Republican, exclusively told The Carolinian,” Ron and I had a conflict, and it had to do with my family, not the [campaign].
The family member in question was Bryson’s daughter, Cary Town Councilmember Jennifer Bryson Robinson, who has served since 2005.
Bryson and her husband, who had even given money to his campaign, were upset when they found out that Margiotta was trying to undermine the 2009 re-election campaign of Robinson.
Records show that “Citizens for Margiotta,” his campaign, gave a $75.00 contribution to Robinson’s campaign in 2005. Her mother was his campaign treasurer then, so it would be naturally expected that he would support his treasurer’s daughter.
But Robinson’s 2009 campaign records show that Margiotta gave no money to her either from his campaign, or personally.
Phyllis Bryson was treasurer for both campaigns at the time.
Bryson said people were calling her, asking why Margiotta was saying not to support Jennifer, even though she was also a Republican, and was running against a Democrat, Lori Bush. Bryson said Margiotta denied the allegation, but people kept confirming what he was doing.
“I confronted him with the problem, and he said, “Oh no, no, no…I would not try to influence other people against [your daughter].” Bryson said despite what people were telling her, she believed Margiotta’s denials at first, “ because we had been friends for so long.”
But the calls and stories kept coming , and soon Bryson realized that Margiotta had lied to her. She confronted him once again, to no avail.
Bryson said she was forced to file a complaint with then Wake Republican Party Chairman Claude Pope, who subsequently wrote Margiotta, telling him he had no business trying to “sabotage,” Bryson said, a candidate the party had already endorsed.
Pope copied Bryson on the letter.
Mrs. Bryson says she hasn’t spoken to Ron Margiotta since the 2009 betrayal, except to tie up lose ends in the campaign treasurer’s report. She and her husband had supported Margiotta since he first ran for office in 2003.
“I don’t know what his reasoning was. I still don’t know what his reasoning was,” Bryson says, later adding that, “It was unethical for him to stab me in the back.”
She added that her problem with Margiotta was not political. Apart from what she alleges he did to her daughter, Bryson said she still sees Margiotta as a “man of integrity with moral values” politically.
But she still sees him as “disloyal.”
“I thought he owed it to us to be a little bit more loyal,” Bryson says with an edge to her voice. “So not only was he underhanded by stabbing us in the back, but he denied it and pretended as if he didn’t do it.”
“It never will be discussed again,” Mrs. Bryson vowed. “They say, “Never burn any bridges. Well I wanted to burn my bridge.”
The Carolinian emailed Cary Town Councilwoman Jennifer Robinson for comment on this story at her office. She did not respond by presstime.
Ron Margiotta was asked by email by The Carolinian to respond, but also did not do so by presstime.
In both cases, each was informed that Mrs. Bryson had spoken with The Carolinian.