Wednesday, December 18, 2013


   The Carolinian Newspaper has broken two exclusive stories regarding the ouster of Wake School Board member Keith Sutton as chairman on Dec. 3rd.

                                                          PROF. JIM MARTIN

By Cash Michaels

            In the most candid remarks yet about the ouster of Keith Sutton as Wake School Board chairman, school board member Prof. Jim Martin says he voted against board Sutton returning for a second term not only because “He never asked me for my vote,” but also because Sutton made critical decisions Martin didn’t agree with.
            It has been over two weeks since the seven white members of the nine-member Wake Board of Education voted to oust their successful African-American board Chairman Sutton for reasons that were cryptic at best.
            Publicly, new board Chair Christine Kushner, who served as board vice chair under Sutton for the past year, and the six other members who voted with her to unseat Sutton, would only say that there needed to be a change in “leadership style,” that “the board is bigger than just one person” and that the leadership change was an “internal board matter,” even though state statute doesn’t allow for any such thing beyond employee and real estate issues.
            Prof. Martin, arguably the school board’s most outspoken member, even suggested to the press that the 7-2 vote to oust Sutton was his fault because he would not go along with a unanimous vote for Kushner.
            The goal was not to publicly throw Sutton “under the bus,” Kushner has insisted, but rather immediately present an image of a united Democrat-led Wake School Board that has “come together” to tackle the daunting issues of growing high poverty schools, student assignment, and improving academic standards, among others, with a minimum of controversy as possible.
            But several leaders in the African-American community, including Raleigh District C City Councilman Eugene Weeks; Wake County Commissioner James West; and Rev. Dr. Earl C. Johnson, president of the Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association; were not satisfied with the reasons given for the ouster of, perhaps, one of the most effective Wake School Board chairmen in the history of the school system.
            Unless there was some clear evidence of malfeasance, and there wasn’t any, it was hard to understand, given the desperate and rudderless shape the Wake School Board was mired in in December 2012 until Chairman Sutton took over, why a leader who successfully achieved passage of a much-needed $810 million school construction bond; the hiring of an experienced school superintendent; the adoption of a new balanced budget that didn’t layoff any teachers; fought off Republican legislative attempts to take control of school system properties; and ultimately helped to rebuild community confidence in the school board’s ability to function, would be then unceremoniously kicked to the curb by his colleagues a year later.
            One other local black leader also had a hard time understanding what was done, and why.
            Jannet Barnes, chairwoman of the influential Wake African-American Caucus, an auxiliary of the Wake County Democratic Party, wanted answers, so she invited both new school board Chair Kushner, and Prof. Martin, to address the caucus at its Dec. 11th meeting at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Raleigh.
            Barnes also personally invited The Carolinian Newspaper to come and cover the event, in hopes of getting a better accounting for the community.
            Ms. Barnes put no restrictions on The Carolinian, and a reporter for the paper publicly identified himself when asked, so both Kushner and Martin knew he was in the room when they spoke.
            Sutton had been invited, but did not arrive until after Kushner and Martin made their remarks.
            Then Barnes made it clear in her remarks that the ousting of school board Chairman Keith Sutton without “reasonable” cause, was unacceptable to Wake’s African-American community, and unless it was satisfied shortly, it may have ramifications for black Democratic support come 2016 when all of the school board seats are up for re-election.
            “I’m very disturbed about some of the things that are going on, and this is to the two Board of Education members,” Chairwoman Barnes told Kushner, Martin, and the rest of the Democratic officials and members present. “You can say this is personnel…it may be personnel issues to you, but it’s personal to the African-American community, and we need some reasonable explanation, because if you read what’s going on in the papers, there was politicking going before some of our board members were even sworn-in, and even had a voice at the table.”
            Barnes went on to say that Sutton was the only Wake School Board member she saw during her canvassing across the county actively promoting the school construction bond referendum before civic groups and churches.
            “We just need a reasonable explanation, and if we can’t get a reasonable explanation that satisfies us…,” Barnes warned before asking Kushner and Martin to explain themselves, further challenging them to explain why, “…you felt you could not comfortably sit under another tenure of Keith Sutton’s leadership.”
            For her part, Chairwoman Kushner, who later admitted that “it was tempting to stay home,” cryptically said that, “…it…was important that we come together as a board, and I don’t want to throw any of my colleagues under the bus or betray any conversations I’ve had with them. My colleagues came to me and wanted me to consider leadership. We have a great board of nine. We have to come together as a board.”
            Kushner then immediately pivoted to assure Barnes and the rest of the Wake AAC that the new board is just as committed to addressing the issues of school suspensions, improving academic standards, etc. as Wake AAC was, and invited them to work together with the school board, assuring all that Keith Sutton, who also represents predominately black District 4, stills plays a vital role on the board.
            Kushner tried hard to be discreet and restrained in an effort not to antagonize. However, Prof. Martin, as expected, went vigorously in the opposite direction.
            Where the new chairwoman only slightly defended Sutton’s ouster, Martin virtually made it clear that it certainly had to happen in order for the school board to move forward on the issues he cared about.
            Martin opined that “the leadership of any board was generally the board’s decision,” and what the Wake School Board did was essentially no different from what happens when other boards vote for a new direction without giving full public disclosure.
            ‘That is the case here,” Prof. Martin added.
            He said that he found it “a little intriguing” that board members would be criticized for “politicking” to oust Sutton prior to new board members being sworn-in, saying, “It would strike me as being very unwise not to have discussions ahead of time.”
            “That is, as far as I can tell, normal operation of any board,” Martin insisted.
            As Chairwoman Kushner cringed in her seat as Martin began his prolonged case against Sutton, the vocal college professor then got into specifics, first by seemingly backhanding Sutton, saying, “He never even asked for my vote” to continue as chair.
            “So I find that a little bit intriguing, from a personal perspective,” Martin said, then justifying his reasoning by confusingly saying, “You all want us to ask you for our vote, and show us why we would do that, and it would strike me that that is part of a leadership decision, and I can tell you that that didn’t happen,” reiterating that through all of the conversations he’s had with Sutton, the former chairman “never” asked Martin for his vote “for leadership.”
             “And it strikes me that that is a fundamental thing that any leader should ask,” Martin insisted to the audience.
            But then, prefacing his further remarks with, “The main reason for my vote [against Sutton] is I look at where we are…,” Prof. Martin proceeded to criticize what he felt were specific policy issues where he apparently strongly differed from his board colleague.
            Martin said the board “worked really hard” to develop a new student assignment policy months ago to alleviate some of the ills from the previous Republican school choice plan. Martin said the new policies weren’t adopted until things were “nearly to crisis level.”
            “I believe if we could have made headway earlier, we would have had less of a crisis,” Martin said, suggesting that then Chairman Sutton didn’t move fast enough to lead the overhauling of the failed school choice plan.
            Martin maintained that the most recent student assignment policy the board adopted is a good policy, but that it has not been implemented as a plan, and he feels that is a mistake. Saying the Republican school choice plan made the problem of high poverty schools in the system “incredibly worse,” Martin said the school board implemented a “stop gap measure” that has been in place for the past year, much longer than he would have liked.
            “We haven’t seen that change. We need to see change,” Martin said.
            On the school safety task force which came about after the deadly Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings a year ago in Connecticut, Martin said board members had “no input” into Chairman Sutton’s decision of appointing Wake Sheriff Donnie Harrison and former Raleigh Police Capt. Al White to co-chair the ad hoc committee.
            “As soon as I heard about it, I gave Mr. Sutton a list of several people I wanted to see on that task force,” Martin said. “I do not believe that task force should have been chaired by Sheriff Harrison, I’m sorry.”
            “When that task force report came out,” Martin continued, “…what happened? Sheriff Harrison disregarded the work of the entire task force, and called for the creation of  [a] Wake County Schools police force. That was not the Board of Education’s decision, that was not the Board of Education’s decision how to construct that task force.”
            Martin went to say that “a lot of really good work” came out of the task force that neither he nor any other board member had any input in.
            “I believe the Board of Education should have helped select that task force. I don’t believe it should have been formulated the way it was,” Martin said.
            “It’s the kind of leadership, the style of leadership that the board was not included, and frankly those issues are issues that are important to me, and I believe are important to you,” Prof. Martin said, adding. “And I believe we’re going to see progress, because I believe there is a commitment on our board to improve safety, to improve discipline issues, to improve assignment issues, and I think you going to see this board moving forward, and I don’t think you’re going to see that assignment policy sitting on the shelf.”
            Realizing that he may have gone way off the reservation of Chairwoman Kushner’s comfort level, or revealed some of his deeper disdain for Keith Sutton’s leadership, Prof. Martin then took on a patronizing tone.
“I hope I’m not giving too much information, I respect Mr. Sutton very highly, I will work with him, and I told him, however the vote would go, I will work with whoever becomes chair. He has a lot to offer. We need him as a member of our board,” Martin offered.
After hailing Sutton’s call that more school system business should go to “minority” businesses, Martin continued, “Mr. Sutton brings a lot of value, he is a member of our team. This is not “throwing under the bus.” This is not “stabbing him in the back.” He has much value to bring, as does Monika Johnson-Hostler, another African-American member of our board.”
“I don’t believe you see a black-and-white board,” Martin said, referring to the fact that all of the white board members voted against the board’s only two African-Americans to oust Sutton.
“I don’t.”
When Sutton did arrive at the Wake AAC meeting after the remarks, as The Carolinian reporter was leaving, board colleague Jim Martin was laughing and talking with Sutton, apparently not sharing the critical tone he publicly took about Sutton before he arrived.
            The Carolinian sent a digital recording of both Kushner and Martin’s remarks to Sutton to listen to, and asked him if he would like to respond.
            After listening, Sutton agreed to an exclusive interview to answer Martin and Kushner’s allegations, along with others made by some of his critics. Part 1 of the exclusive interview appears in this edition, and can be heard on the radio program “Make It Happen” on Power 750 WAUG-AM, and this afternoon at 4 p.m.

                                                         KEITH SUTTON  

By Cash Michaels

            For the past two weeks since his Wake School Board colleagues voted 7-2 to remove him as chairman, Keith Sutton has been stoic in his restraint.
            He’s had to tolerate remarks from his successor, Christine Kushner, that “The board is bigger than one person,” and from board colleague Prof. Jim Martin that board disunity in electing Kushner was Sutton’s fault, as if he was supposed to vote for his own dismissal.
            He’s even had to put up with emailed personal attacks from the head of a local parents’ group who feels Sutton hasn’t been responsive enough.
            But when the former Wake School Board chairman heard a recording of remarks made by Martin and Kushner at the Dec. 11th Wake African-American Caucus meeting in his District 4 East Raleigh territory, Sutton decided he had restrained himself long enough.
            It had become clear to him that while Kushner and other board members feared being seen throwing Sutton “under the bus” by the public and the media, they had no problem doing so one-on-one or in closed meetings with various people in the community, thus attempting to undermine his notable accomplishments as chairman for the past year.
            Sutton told The Carolinian Newspaper, which provided him with the recording after attending that Wake AAC meeting by invitation last week, that his side of his tenure should be told, not necessarily to counter any one individual who has criticized him, but to clarify the record.
            In an exclusive interview Monday, Sutton spoke his piece.
            “I was disappointed in the outcome of the vote,” the former chairman told The Carolinian Newspaper. “I certainly would have liked to have served two terms as chair, “ Sutton continued, noting that most Wake School Board chairmen in the system’s history have served the maximum two-year term by tradition and practice.
Even Kevin Hill, who was board chair for only six months in 2009 before the Republican majority took control and immediately removed him, was given a year to continue when the Democrats took back the board in 2011.
            Sutton has been the only chair in recent memory limited by the board to just one term (in 2009, Chairwoman Rosa Gill voluntarily left when appointed to fill out the unexpired term of House Rep. Dan Blue, who had moved over to the state Senate).
            “It was my hope that we as a board could have gotten back to some of the continuity and stability that we have had, particularly in the chair position,” Sutton said, adding that he was grateful that colleagues had given him the opportunity to serve at least one year as chair in December 2012.
            Sutton saw his role as school board chair as setting the tone, identifying the board’s priorities, and then moving forward with the board to accomplish that agenda.
            Sometimes, certain situations and time restraints required the chair to use his best judgment, and in crisis situations, that’s what Sutton did without apology.
            One accusation posited by a board member (who The Carolinian agreed not to name) was that between Sutton’s job in state government, being the father of two children, and other commitments, he just didn’t have the time to fully serve as chair.
            Given all of the major challenges that Sutton took on and accomplished on behalf of the board in the past year, he bristles at the accusation that his commitments kept him from doing the important work.
            “Like most board members, I work a full-time job,” Sutton said, noting that most parents in the county also work to support their families, so it helped him, as chair, understand their challenges. “As most parents in this county and this system, I work a full-time job, so that’s nothing different or nothing new.”
             In that vain, Sutton had a pointed message for his detractors.
            “Because the current chair [Christine Kushner] does not work, [it was suggested] that she would have more time to commit to the position,” Sutton said. “And while she may have more time, that’s certainly obvious, I don’t know if that’s a requirement to be chair, or to be a member of the board.”
            “And that just strikes me as a bit of an elitist attitude to say [that] one has the ability to stay at home and not work, and therefore have more time to commit to the position,” Sutton continued bluntly. “The insinuation that [one] might be able to do a better job or do things differently because of that, just strikes me as being a little bit elitist.”
            The allegations that were made during the Dec. 11th meeting of the Wake African-American Caucus, an auxiliary of the Wake Democratic Party, are of particular interest to Sutton. He arrived at the meeting late, unaware that school board Chairwoman Christine Kushner and fellow board colleague Prof. Jim Martin would be there, let alone be asked to explain why was Sutton removed as chair.
            In her brief remarks to the Wake AAC – remarks that The Carolinian was invited to cover by Wake AAC Chair Jannet Barnes – Kushner insinuated that the school board was not united under Sutton’s leadership style, so much so that, “…my colleagues came to me and wanted me to consider leadership.”
            Compared to Kushner’s brief and discreet remarks, Prof. Jim Martin virtually gave a rhetorical PowerPoint presentation of how, in his opinion, Sutton failed to successfully lead on moving new student assignment policies into implementation over the past year, and how Sutton allegedly denied the board any input into the formulation of the Schools Safety Task Force.
            ““It’s the kind of leadership, the style of leadership that the board was not included, and frankly those issues are issues that are important to me…,” Martin told the Wake AAC.
            Prof. Martin then, in an effort to soften his tone, inexplicably said that Sutton, “…has much value to bring, as does Monika Johnson-Hostler, another African-American member of our board.”
            Why Martin deliberately singled out the board’s only two African-American members, as if to say that contrary to popular belief, the seven other white members’ vote to remove Sutton was not racial, is not clear.
            But it didn’t help.
            Sutton didn’t react to the racial aspect of Prof. Martin’s remarks, but he did take umbrage with other remarks, without calling either Martin or Kushner by name.
            Sutton is on record as voting against the ill-fated Republican school choice plan in 2011 (before Martin got on the board) because he feared that it would create more high poverty schools, which it did.
            When the Democrats took back the board majority, they tried to give the school choice plan time to work in 2012 until it became clear that it wouldn’t. The plug was pulled and then Supt. Tony Tata was fired.
            Sutton says in the aftermath, the board had few maps to work with to then develop a new student assignment plan and policy that would ensure proximity and stability. So a stopgap measure and new policies were adopted until a full plan could be developed.
            But there were also more pressing priorities that the board was looking down the barrel at that Sutton, as chair, felt had to be addressed immediately – namely the filling of two vacated board seats left by Republicans Chris Malone and Debra Goldman, and the process of hiring a new schools superintendent.
            Add to those trying to build bridges to a testy Republican-led Wake County Commission Board which was threatening not to push for the $810 million school construction bond; preparing for a new $1.2 billion budget with a $30 million gap that would not cut teachers in a bad economy; and then dealing with two unforeseen legislative challenges by the county commissioners to take control of the school system’s properties and redraw the school board’s district voting maps, and Sutton says, in his judgment, that with one major challenge after another, something had to be left on the shelf for later attention.
            Then there was the recent staff recommendation that because there would be no new schools opening soon, there was no need to reassign or move students. Instead, a new three-year plan would be drafted, using the new policies, starting the 2014-15 school year with the CTE and other new schools coming on line.
            So despite implications expressed by Martin that not moving forward with a new student assignment plan was a failure in leadership, Sutton says the record shows there were vital priorities which had to come first.
            Another issue was the formation of the Schools Safety Task Force, an ad hoc committee to study campus security Sutton says is in the purview of the chair to create and appoint members to.
            WCPSS staff had proposed spending $2 million to $3 million on hiring unarmed security personnel in the schools, especially in the 105 elementary schools. Sutton, some on the board, and members of the community had problems with that, so he decided the concern deserved expert study.
            With the support of the interim superintendent at the time, and head of WCPSS security, Sutton created the task force.
            He adds that members of the board were involved, and did make recommendations as to who should serve.
            The former chair says it made sense to appoint the highest ranking law enforcement official in the county to co-chair the task force, namely Wake Sheriff Donnie Harrison, not only because in case of a school shooting or emergency anywhere in the county, his would be the lead local agency answering the call, but also so that Harrison could bring Emergency Management and other responsible agencies to the table for their considered analysis.
            Plus, the fact that Sheriff Harrison is Republican sent a strong message that school security was a bipartisan issue, and should be treated that way, Sutton says.
            And as for retired Raleigh Police Captain Al White, Sutton felt that his current role in administrative security at North Carolina Central University in Durham was a needed element when it came to knowing how large school campuses are laid out, and what the most effective ways of securing them would be.
            Sutton said he then carefully chose representatives of various disciplines, including mental health, substance abuse, the law and even parents to fill out the board so that a comprehensive set of recommendations would come forth.
            “When we came out with those names, I heard very few, if any complaints,” Sutton recalls, saying that he wanted that bi-partisan task force to have credibility so that both sides of all issues could be openly be discussed at the table.
            The task force did issue its final report of recommendations during the summer. Having WCPSS create its own police force, as Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Moore county school systems have, was not part of that report, Sutton said, primarily because of the expense and practicality.
            Sheriff Harrison, however, felt compelled to personally give his own assessment that Wake School System should develop its own police force because of the importance of a centralized authority in times of crisis. Sutton reiterates that that was the sheriff’s own opinion, but it was not part of the official task force report.
            Regarding why he didn’t ask for certain school board members’ votes for reelection as chair, Sutton said that with all the board had been facing this past year, it would have been inappropriate to begin politicking before the school bond passed and the October elections. But as soon as the elections were over, Sutton was surprised to learn that Christine Kushner was already being touted by a majority of the board to oppose him for leadership.
            In the weeks leading up to the December 3rd vote to remove him, Sutton had several heated discussions with some of those who opposed him. But the handwriting on the wall.
What has struck Sutton, and observers of the Democrat-led Wake School Board for the past year as odd, is that whatever disagreements of substance that some felt warranted Sutton’s removal as chair, never really reared their ugly heads. Many of the very board members who voted to oust Sutton, are the same board members who voted approval when that same chairman brought issues to the table for their support and ratification.
            Indeed, if there any strong differences of opinion with the chair, or strong feelings regarding needed agenda items that should be priority, rarely was that made known at the table, Sutton agrees.
            “While I’m chair, and have the ability to certainly influence certain decisions and give some direction, there’s not a whole lot I can do by myself or on my own,” Sutton says. “ I am one vote of nine…”
            “At that time, I heard very little concern, if any about these issues being raised at this point. So if the criticism is about my kind of leadership, my style of leadership, I make no apologies for that. It has given direction, it’s being decisive, and being strategic in what we were doing, an if you look at this past year and what we accomplished, as a board, in passing a bond, in hiring a superintendent – and having an open and fair process in doing that – to getting a good solid budget passed, in having some success with the Legislature to hold onto construction and maintenance of our schools, and the community feeling comfortable with that, and trusting us to not just continuing to build schools, but with $800 million of their money to build sixteen more.”
            “I think we were able to reestablish some credibility in the community, establish some confidence in this board and in the school district. So I make no apologies for the kind of leadership I provided. Quite frankly, I’m very proud of it, and proud of what we accomplished this year as a board.
            In Part 2 next week, Sutton discusses why, sometimes, he had to go it alone.


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