STATEMENT FROM DR. EARL C. JOHNSON, PRESIDENT OF THE RALEIGH WAKE CITIZENS ASSOCIATION (RWCA) on the Wake School Board Shakeup
The Raleigh Wake Citizens Association, which has represented the interests of the diverse citizens of the second largest county in the State of North Carolina for more than 80 years, has been unsettled by the news that Wake County School Board Member Keith Sutton has been replaced after serving for one year as board Chairman. We have, specifically, several immediate concerns about this matter, which happened without any indication of misdeeds or improper actions by Mr. Sutton.
To begin, Keith Sutton’s resume as a seasoned and well-regarded leader did not begin when he was elected to the Wake County School Board in 2009. From his work with such organizations such as the NAACP and the National Urban League to his work with the North Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and the Victim Advocate Liaison for the North Carolina Governor’s Crime Commission, Keith’s service to his community is rarely seen in the office of an elected official. His election to the school board was simply an extension of his commitment to the lives of young people, including his daughters, who are students with the Wake County Public School System.
When he became Chairman of the Board last year, he was faced with the aftermath of a divided body rife with internecine feuds and allegations of inappropriate conduct among board members. Keith managed to assuage the community while building coalitions among his colleagues. Over the past year, he also oversaw the hiring of a new superintendent, an $810 million school construction bond issue and staved off a proposed takeover by county commissioners. That type of leadership in North Carolina and indeed, in Wake County, is an uncommon sight.
Most disturbing about the recent move, however, is that the vote among Board members was divided along racial lines. If Mr. Sutton had not voted for himself, he would have only had one other supporter --- and that supporter is one of the newest members of the Board. How could an incoming member recognize the significance of his leadership and his longtime colleagues reject it? If, indeed, the board members feel as though their actions were justified, could they not have reached out to leaders in the community in advance? The answers that we have received thus far are simply reactionary and our minds are not settled at this point.
Finally, we wish to express to the remaining board members that this is a new day. It is not lost on us that many, if not all of you, have visited our meetings and attended our public forums during election seasons. You have sought our endorsements and seek our assistance with your campaign canvassing and fundraising efforts. The upcoming elections of 2016 may seem far off, but our memories are even longer. This slight of one of our brightest leaders is not something that we take lightly. Keith Sutton represented a beacon of hope to the thousands of young African-American students who are educated under his watch. In an era in which our President is besieged by hostile forces within the GOP, we, the membership of the Raleigh Wake Citizens, feel as though WCSB Member Keith Sutton has been similarly maligned.
Our minds are not settled with this matter.
Yours in progress,
Reverend Dr. Earl C. Johnson
WHY WAS CHAIRMAN
By Cash Michaels
To sit in the audience of Tuesday night’s historic Wake County Board of Education meeting was, in the words of one observer, “shocking.”
With no reason given, all seven of the embattled board’s white members, in what was clearly a pre-planned event, voted without delay, to oust the body’s African-American chairman, Keith Sutton.
Only two people on the nine-member board voted for Sutton to remain chair – Monika Johnson-Hostler, who had just been sworn-in representing District 2 – and Sutton himself.
Johnson-Hostler, like the board chairman she supported, is also African-American.
When pressed moments later by the media after the stunning vote, the white board members, the majority of whom are Democrats, insisted that race was not the reason for their extraordinary, and yet clearly united action.
They all knew what they had just done looked like, and had reportedly tried to head it off behind the scenes by urging Sutton, their target, to actually be the one to nominate his “replacement,” Christine Kushner, as the new chair.
Again, “race had nothing to do with this,” even though the sight of the outgoing black board chairman nominating his white female vice chair to take his seat, would certainly absolve the white majority of any bad optics that could be assigned to their apparent coup d’état.
Sutton, unbeknownst to the public, stoically refused to do the majority’s dirty work for them. For the past year, when the credibility of the Wake School Board was as about as thin as a wet paper towel, it was Sutton who marched forward, as chairman, and tackled the big issues.
Unlike many of his colleagues on the school board, Sutton had the political tools to get the job of restoring the board’s battered credibility done. The father of two children and UNC alumnus, Sutton had served as executive director of the NC NAACP; president and CEO of the Triangle Chapter of the National Urban League; had worked as a field operative in Barack Obama’s 2008 NC presidential campaign; was working in state government; and finally, was chosen by the Wake School Board in 2009 to finish out the unexpired term of the departing Chairwoman Rosa Gill, ultimately becoming board chairman himself in December 2012 after the firing of Tea Party Supt. Tony Tata, a remnant of the disastrous Ron Margiotta – John Tedesco years which tore the school board, and the community, apart.
The Wake School Board was in tatters. Public confidence in its ability to do anything right had waned, and the Democratic board majority became the partisan target of the Republican-led Wake County Commission Board, which threatened, after Tata’s firing, not to cooperate with promoting the passage of the badly needed $810 million school construction bond.
And if that wasn’t threat enough, the GOP commissioners, deciding to further taunt the school board while it was clearly on its knees, unexpectedly moved legislatively to take control and management of the Wake school system’s buildings and properties, and also change the school board’s redistricting lines in order for Republicans to have an easier time taking back control.
Couple all of that with the added challenges of hiring a new schools superintendent; crafting a workable budget in the midst of severe cutbacks; dealing with how to enhance school campus security in the midst of national shooting tragedies; and launching a new student assignment plan – all with two Tea Party holdovers from the previous Republican majority trying to sabotage the Democrats at every turn – and it was clear that the Wake School Board would be lucky if it was able to accomplish even half of that daunting agenda in a year.
But Chairman Sutton did, and never flinched.
The Rocky Mount native learned tactical politics at the feet of such giants as Vernon Malone – the first black Wake School Board chairman; Ralph Campbell, Jr. – North Carolina’s first black state auditor; and Carolyn Q. Coleman – Guilford County Commissioner and member of the national NAACP Board of Directors.
Those accomplished black elected leaders taught Sutton how to work within the system; how to be professional when under great pressure to react otherwise; and most importantly, how not to wear your politics on your sleeve when you’re elected to serve all of the people.
They taught him discipline, and strategy.
They taught him discipline, and strategy.
And it also helped, ironically enough, that because Sutton was black, and represented predominately-black District 4 in East Raleigh, that much wasn’t expected of him by many of his white board colleagues anyway.
Sutton’s constituents weren’t bankers, lawyers and businessmen for the most part. They were struggling black families amidst high unemployment, and a higher crime rate than any other school district, through no fault of their own. Their children were in more need of educational resources than any other in the county, and Sutton’s main goal was to give them a voice at the table.
So with the board chairmanship too hot handle after the Tata debacle, why not give it to Sutton for a year? It gave the rest of the board’s Democrats a chance to regroup, they thought. Sutton had made a deal with then Chairman Kevin Hill to succeed him after a year anyway, so why not let him have it, and let the Republicans focus on him, and not us?
Besides, Kushner was installed as board vice chairman to make sure that when Chair Sutton stumbled or his most likely troubled term was finished, she, District 8’s Susan Evans, District 5’s Jim Martin, and the battered Kevin Hill, would be in a position to clean up, and maybe even, take some credit.
Problem though – Sutton was more than capable of handling the task of leadership without them, and they soon came to realize that.
And not like it.
And not like it.
From the hiring a legislative lobbyist to combat the GOP-led county commission board’s attempt to strip Wake school property control from them, to calmly meeting with then Wake Commission Board Chairman Joe Bryan to ensure that there would be a partnership to make passage of the school construction bonds a reality, Sutton’s political instincts told him that while his board colleagues were eager to ride the school board bus to accompany him to every chairman-to-chairman meeting, that just wasn’t possible.
Sutton’s political training told him that in tight, controversial and politically explosive situations, personal relationships between leaders matter greatly. Trust is both developed, coveted, and then leveraged for the greater good, and for their respective boards to later ratify, or reject.
A staunch Democrat, Sutton never led with his politics, a deadly mistake Kushner, Evans and Martin had already made, making them so politically toxic that even Tea Party Supt. Tata felt the need to attack all three publicly before he was fired.
Sutton was never really a right-wing target because he didn’t make himself one, thus allowing him better opportunities to talk turkey with what otherwise would be Republican adversaries. And when he didn’t like what he was hearing, he put his foot down.
But Sutton also had two other weapons few recognized for what they really were – he was deceptively understated, but fiercely independent.
Sutton studied his Democratic colleagues, his Republican adversaries, and the challenges that he had to face as chairman, and he quietly planned accordingly. He knew who, and who not to take with him into certain situations, if at all, because ultimately, success was the main goal under difficult circumstances.
Kushner and Evans were of limited use because of their stated liberalism and associations.
Jim Martin, an NC State University professor, could be counted on to give laborious lectures at the board table without invitation. And his aggressive, and at times erratic behavior during a joint meeting with the Wake Board of Commissioners during sensitive school bond negotiations, only crystalized the need to keep him away from the important stuff.
Former Chairman Kevin Hill was so battered by the board Republicans’ abuse, he not only gladly stepped down, but actually changed his party registration from Democrat to unaffiliated, just to get out of the political line of fire. This, after the county Democratic Party, a year earlier, poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into his 2011 re-election campaign.
Moderate Republican Bill Fletcher didn’t take long, upon being selected to fill an unexpired board term several months ago, to let Chairman Sutton know that he marched to a different drummer.
And former Principal Tom Benton, another selected board member, also saw things differently than Sutton, and said so.
So the best the chairman, who would ultimately be blamed if any of the board’s challenges imploded, could do was trust his own instincts and political skills to get the job done.
Sutton forged ahead, making sure, according to a source who worked with him closely to pave the way in his many lobbying efforts, to keep his board colleagues informed, and also monitor what was happening in their respective board committee meetings.
When he could attend some of those committee meetings, as an ex-officio member, Sutton would, schedule permitting. But working to solve the challenges facing the board was his priority, and by all accounts - when he wasn’t in his district speaking with constituents or holding community events - that’s what Sutton spent the most time doing.
As stated by the Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association last week in its appeal to the school board that Chairman Sutton deserved another term, when the smoke from the past year cleared, he had:
- Filled two board vacancies;
- Passed a balanced budget in a continued fragile economy;
- Hired a superintendent in a transparent, fair, and open process;
- Defeated efforts by Wake Commissioners to control school construction
and maintenance of facilities;
- Obtained community support for passage of an $810 million bond referendum;
- Continued development and implementation of a new student assignment plan that contained no reassignments for the upcoming school year; and
- Convened a task force on school and campus safety that produced recommendations for improved security across the school district.
A strong record even his board colleagues could not deny.
And that was also a problem.
Passage of the school bond – Sutton led the way.
Hiring of Supt. Jim Merrill – Sutton led the way.
Convening a school security task force – the chairman had the lead.
Defeating the Wake Commission effort to control school properties – Sutton spent over $100,000 for a legislative lobbyist, and got the job done.
But wait a minute – all of the above was put to a board vote, and approved accordingly. So Sutton’s colleagues DID have say.
However, prior to Tuesday’s vote to dump Sutton, the accusation, as related to The Carolinian by the one Wake School Board member who did return a request for comment, was that Chairman Sutton would go it alone too much, didn’t have time for important meetings, and would not collaborate with others.
The fact that he got a lot successfully done in the course of a year was definitely acknowledged, but the fact that it was he, and not the rest of the board, who showed up in front page pictures in The News and Observer, or that he was appearing in WRAL, WTVD or WNCN video news coverage, and not the others, was very troubling, they maintained.
As far as that one board member, whose name The Carolinian promised would not be revealed, was concerned, there was a “need” for a “different” leadership style on the board, and the decision had already been made.
That board member then cut the conversation short to go meet with Supt. Jim Merrill.
Certainly many, if not all of the seven Wake School Board members who voted to dismiss Chairman Keith Sutton Dec. 3rd will publicly disagree with most, if not all of the above. As far as they’re concerned, what they did was necessary for the future of Wake County Public Schools. Those board members - five Democratic, one Republican and one unaffiliated - believe that theirs should be a unified, cohesive effort now to tackle the issues before them.
By doing what they did, the way they did it, without ever saying a word, the white board majority conceded that none of them possessed the political skills or acumen that their black board chairman clearly had. So the only way to now bury his singular accomplishments with the past, is to cut him lose entirely, and forge ahead to rack up their own collective accomplishments in the future.
Some of them indeed, now want their faces on the front pages of the major newspaper, and in all the major media.
Problem – the very reason why Sutton had to go Lone Ranger in the first place, is about to rear its ugly head.
By all accounts, neither new Chairwoman Christine Kushner nor new Vice Chairman Tom Benton possess the political skills to deal with two staunch adversaries of the school board – newly-elected Wake Commission Board Chair Phil Matthews and Vice Chair Tony Gurley.
And they'll have to.
When it comes to strong right-wing conservatism, both Matthews and Gurley are miles ahead of the man Keith Sutton built a solid, trusting relationship with – moderate former Wake Commission Chair Joe Bryan.
Indeed, Gurley, who has served as chair and vice chair of the commission board before, has made it clear that he will try again to get commission control of the school system’s properties next state legislative session. And the day before the school board convened Dec. 3rd, the Republican majority voted to withhold $5 million in funding for the design of four new schools (by state law, county commission boards in North Carolina control the purse strings of all boards of education, who do not have taxing authority to raise their own funding) until they get more answers about the price tag.
That, in addition to the commission board voting unanimously two weeks ago to stall a school system lease on a site for the new Abbotts Creek Elementary School in North Raleigh. All of those votes are delaying important Wake school system projects to meet projected student growth demands.
Matthews, Gurley and the rest of the GOP majority on the Wake County Commission Board, could care less.
Matthews, Gurley and the rest of the GOP majority on the Wake County Commission Board, could care less.
A "Chairman" Keith Sutton, based on the trust he had developed via the school bond issue, may have been able to skillfully paddle around what clearly is yet another challenging political obstacle.
Kushner and Benton, on the other hand, have absolutely no relationship with Matthews and Gurley that promises the same, so clearly, they now start at a disadvantage with two right-wing leaders they’ll have to very delicately deal with.
And if they pull Martin, Evans, Hill and Fletcher into the mix, the results won’t be anymore promising. If they get anything, it will be at a political price Matthews and Gurley will impose.
Then there’s the issue of the plethora of high poverty schools that have been left in the wake of the Republican policies when the GOP dominated the school board from 2009 – 2011. In their zeal to establish neighborhood schools and school choice, that GOP board eliminated Wake’s successful student diversity policy, helping to create more schools where the student population is at least fifty percent free-and-reduced lunch.
The result, according to recently published reports, is that Wake now has more failing schools where the population is majority black, Hispanic, and poor.
Removing the black school board chairman at a critical time when Wake's African-American community trusts that this critical issue will be resolved fairly and equitably, may prove to be a mistake now. Even when Sutton was still chair, the board made clear that it was not returning to student assignment to alleviate pressures on student achievement. Parents don't want it.
But putting tens of millions of dollars into providing the vital resources needed in high poverty schools appears not to be an option either, especially in these tight budget times.
So will the new Kushner-Benton Wake School Board decide to allow these high poverty schools just to exist without further aid, as many other public school districts across the state and nation have done?
And how will that look after the board has unceremoniously dumped the one voice many of those high poverty school students had as chair?
Only time will tell.
Tuesday evening, when asked by the media – who were so shocked by what had just happened that they had to admit The Carolinian had beaten all of them on the story by two weeks – to explain the reason for Chairman Keith Sutton’s ouster,
the Kushner Seven could, but would not, give a reason.
“It’s not about one person,” Kushner told the eager cameras and reporters. ‘It’s about us coming together as a board.”
Amazingly, when asked for his take on what he had just voted for, Jim Martin is quoted telling the media that the board majority tried to get Sutton to agree to support Kushner’s chair nomination in order to have a unanimous vote by acclamation, but Sutton refused.
Martin, in effect, was blaming Sutton for not giving the Kushner Seven the political cover they needed to carry out his own demise.
In doing so, Martin may have admitted to something that got the previous Republican board in trouble in 2009 – that he, Kushner, Fletcher, Benton, Evans, Hill, and even new member Zora Felton, all concluded, and agreed, at some point in time, to not only get Sutton out, but pressure him to concede BEFORE a vote.
With six of those seven board members serving before Tuesday’s swearing-in, the question must be asked, “Did they, a majority of the Wake School Board, meet to discuss public business, namely the election of a new school board chair, without alerting the public, as they are legally obligated too?”
We may never know the truth.
Members of the African-American community sat in shock and silence, not believing that the Democratic school board they had once worked so hard to elect in 2011, had just stabbed one of their best, brightest, and arguably most effective young leaders in the back right in front of them.
They would have been further shocked to know, according to sources, that some of the school board members even worried, amongst themselves, that black audience members would angrily react to what had just happened.
That did not happen.
Now ex-Chairman Keith Sutton, in a stated moment of defiant personal privilege, called on his strength as a Christian, and as a black man, to proudly declare that as much as the board majority would like to rhetorically say otherwise, he had nothing to be ashamed of in his leadership.
“I hope I have served you and the community well, and made you proud, Sutton stoically told his many stunned supporters, adding for those saddened by what they just saw, “Trust in God.”
The entire room – even the seven board colleagues who would not tell the public why they had just dumped perhaps the best school board chairman Wake County has ever had - stood and applauded.
Christine Kushner then immediately took Sutton’s chairman seat, read from a prepared statement, and with a straight face...called for board unity.