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.


Wednesday, December 4, 2013



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


By Cash Michaels
An analysis


                                                              KEITH SUTTON

            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’├ętat.

            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.

            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.

            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.

            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.

             And enjoy.

            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.