By Cash Michaels
Top Democratic Party leaders in the state, including Gov. Beverly Perdue, Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker and Congressman Brad Miller, are hailing last week’s near sweep in the contentious Wake School Board elections that saw four out of five Democrats win convincingly, with one remaining contest slated for a Nov. 8th runoff.
In an exclusive interview with the radio program, “Make It Happen, “ which will air this afternoon at 4 p.m. on Power 750 WAUG-AM/Power 750.com, Gov. Perdue, in High Point last Friday to deliver a keynote luncheon address to the NCNAACP, said she hoped that the Democratic victories would help put an end to the “embarrassing” controversy of the Republican-led Wake School Board’s efforts to end student diversity since 2009.
“I thought it was embarrassing for the state to have folks across the nation talking about what was going on in Wake County school system. We're better than that,” Perdue told “Make It Happen,” referring to Comedy Central comedian Stephen Colbert’s satirical ribbing of Wake County Schools on national television several months ago for dismantling its diversity policy in favor of what some said would be a resegregated neighborhood schools policy.
“The fact that there was ever a discussion about eliminating diversity as part of the opportunity for kids really was troublesome to me,” Perdue continued. “You've got to remember I grew up poor and without a fair chance of going to a great public school. I don't know what would have happened to me.”
Gov. Perdue added, “I do understand parents who want community schools. I do think that is doable with diversity, and so I'm very hopeful.”
Outgoing Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker, whose wife, Dr. Anne McLaurin, will be leaving the Wake School Board next month, also saluted the Democratic victories as a welcomed promise of change from the Republican rancor and contentiousness of the last two years.
“It really is remarkable,” Mayor Meeker said, pointing to the loss of Chairman Ron Margiotta, in his “especially gerrymandered [Republican] district” in Southwest Wake, to Democrat Susan Evans, as proof that voters wanted an immediate change.
“They rejected not only his style of politics - the secret meetings, the rudeness and all of that - but also the substance, pushing divisive issues, bringing in racial parts, trying to allow under-performing schools…all of that has been rejected by our citizens.”
Meeker continued, “I hope we’re headed towards a much better day of school board policy, where they focus on student achievement, and not politics.”
The victories of NCSU Prof. Jim Martin, Christine Kushner, and incumbent Keith Sutton - who crushed his Republican challenger Venita Peyton with 81 percent of the vote - added further proof that Wake’s voters did not like the direction in which Chairman Margiotta was headed.
Congressman Brad Miller (D-13-NC) echoed the sentiments of Gov. Perdue and Mayor Meeker, applauding the Democratic Wake School Board victories.
“I was very pleased with the outcome,” Miller told “Make It Happen.” “ I’ve been very disturbed, as I know [others] have been, as to what has happened to the Wake County schools.”
“We [once] had one of the nation’s best school systems, and we’ve done it while promoting diversity,” Rep. Miller continued. “If you have a division between rich schools and poor schools, it’s going to continue to pull further and further apart, because the rich schools will have more support.”
“So I’m very pleased with the result, and I hope it puts us back on track to have a nationally recognized school system that gives kids a good education, and prepares them for anything they want for themselves in the future,” Miller added, hopeful that diversity will also return as a feature of Wake County Public Schools.
That remains to be seen, however.
By a 6-2 vote Tuesday evening, and at the strong urging of Wake Supt. Anthony Tata, the GOP-led school board adopted a school choice plan to begin the 2012-13 school year, that gives parents options on where to send their children.
Critics, however, are concerned that because of capacity issues, the plan may create low-performing, high poverty neighborhood schools like the one the board just opened, Walnut Creek Elementary School in Southeast Raleigh.
The school is only two months old, and already it is over 100 students beyond capacity, an estimated 77 percent free-and-reduced lunch, and over 50 percent low-achieving, costing over $1 million more per year to operate than comparable elementary schools in the system.
Two of the board’s four Democrats - Kevin Hill of District 3 and Keith Sutton of predominately black District 4, voted against the plan, echoing the concerns of many at a public hearing the previous week.
Though the plan passed, due, in part, to Tata insisting that implementation needs to begin as soon as possible, the prospect of it being halted looms large, pending the Nov. 8th District 3 race between incumbent Kevin Hill, and Republican Tea Party challenger Heather Losurdo, who came in second to Hill in the election when he fell short 51 votes short of winning 50 percent of the total.
Losurdo, who has admitted to supporting the right-wing Tea Party and agreed with her husband on Facebook that President Obama was just like a skunk - “black, white and everything he does smells” - has already officially called for the runoff.
Early voting for the Nov. 8th runoff in District 3 began today.
If Losurdo wins the runoff, the GOP retain their five-member majority on the board, and Vice Chair John Tedesco takes over for the outgoing Republican Chairman Ron Margiotta.
Already the Wake Republican Party, which claims that President Obama’s national campaign organization was really responsible for the GOP losses, and the local Tea Party group, have begun to drum up conservative support for Losurdo. Both Margiotta and Tedesco have pledged their support from the board.
And, just as in 2009 when four Republican candidates swept the school board elections with the help of outside conservative groups, Losurdo’s runoff campaign is expected to see an influx of those dollars.
“There was ample funding of the right-wing takeover behind those candidates two years ago, and [the Oct. 11th] election as well,” Cong. Miller noted.
However if Hill wins, the Democrats will takeover the board majority, and have already indicated that they will change the school choice plan to address the public’s concerns about student achievement and low-performing schools.
Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker said it’s crucial for the voters of District 3 to “make their choice.”
“I think they’re going to make the right choice,” Meeker said. “We can move forward as a community together, or we can get back to these partisan agendas, and have someone like John Tedesco be the chair.”
“I think it’s a pretty clear choice,” Meeker concluded, referring to fellow Democrat Kevin Hill, “ and I think the people of District 3 will make the right choice.”
The Independent Weekly of Durham endorsed Hill Wednesday.
Gov. Perdue was also hopeful for a Democratic majority on the Wake School Board.
“The work is not done yet,” she told Power 750 AM’s “Make It Happen.” “There is another election. We all are going to watch and be enthusiastically following. But I'm very hopefully that this will mean a time out for any school system in North Carolina that wants to go backward on kids who are at risk.”
“It's the wrong thing for this state,” Gov. Perdue concluded. “We're better than that.”