Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Democrats Gain Control of Wake County School Board

Well, it's official.  Democrat Kevin Hill won the run-off election for the final seat on the Wake County School Board, giving the Democrats a 5-4 majority for the next four years, since in the elections for the other half of the board that will take place two years for now, only the four seats currently held by Republicans.  This means that the Republican sweep of two years ago, when all Republicans were elected and started to take the nation's 18th largest school system in a dramatically different direction, has effectively been swept out again.

Long-time readers of this blog know that I have had a lot of issues with the Republican-led board over the past two years (for reminders, you can see some of my posts such as Wake School Board Majority Should Be Ashamed  or How NOT to Respond to Reports Critical of Wake County School Board).  Such readers will not be surprised to hear that I'm glad that the Democrats have regained control.  For one thing, I happen to agree more with the educational priorities of the Democrats than I do with the Republicans.  I believe even the choice plan that was passed by the Republicans just weeks before they lost all the elections will lead to a less equitable and more segregated community, and I think that is a bad idea.

However, politics and policies aside, here are some reasons why I think the counter-sweep is a good idea.

Reason Number One:  The Board Majority Was an Embarrassment to our Community
Please understand that I'm saying all Republicans are an embarrassment, because I'm not.  I'm referring to the specific personalities of the individual people elected, particularly the two whose names appeared in the newspaper most frequently.  Too often, the board were rude to the public, to school system personnel, and even to each other.  They would insult each other in public meetings.  Too often, they were arrogant, and refused to listen to their colleagues or to public they were supposed to serve.  Too often, they displayed an astounding ignorance of the educational issues about which they were supposed to setting policy.  And too often, they meddled where they didn't belong, such as the time when the two board members decided they would draw up redistricting maps all on there own.

And when I say they were an embarrassment, I really don't think I'm speaking subjectively.  I think that any school board that gets singled out and criticized by Stephen Colbert and the US Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan  can be said to be tarnishing our reputation.

This point was also made frequently in letters to the editor of the local newspaper.  Several authors pointed out that even though the area is increasingly mixed demographically, we are still in the South, and we just don't believe in people behaving badly, especially people who are supposed to be leading our children.  So I think one message of this new election is for people to behave better, which is certainly something I support.

Reason Number Two:  Money Didn't Carry the Day
This was the most expensive school board election in Wake County history, and perhaps in the history of North Carolina.   The news is now saying that half a million dollars was spent on this school board election, much coming from interest group outside our community.

However, in most, if not all of the races, the Republican candidates received a much higher percentage of the money.  In the case of the run-off between Hill and his opponent, the Republican's donations were twice that of the Democrat.

And despite all that money, every Republican lost.  So this election is a reassuring example of money not being able to just "buy" an election.

Reason Number Three:  It Shows that Trying to Cram Through One-Sided Ideology Doesn't Work
Here is what I think is potentially most important about these results.  I hope our elected official at all levels will see this as a lesson that just because you won the latest election, it doesn't mean you can enact everything you want 100% your way.  If you refuse to listen to or compromise with or accommodate the other side's concerns, at least to some extend, you are shooting yourself in the foot.  You'll simply rile up your opposition, who will turn you out of office as soon as the next election comes along.

So here is an admission:  while I don't agree with everything the Republicans were trying to do, they had some valid concerns and proposals.  I think the school system needed some shaking up.  In the early 2000s, it was the schools who were arrogantly refusing to listen to parental frustrations about the constant moving about of their children.  It wasn't until the Towns of Cary and Apex threatened to sue their own school system that the school system started to take the family complaints seriously.  So the Wake County Public School System made their own bed, and were made to lie in it when a too-long-ignored public turned out WCPSS' traditional supporters on the Board for the innovators offered by the Republicans.

However, the Board majority blew their opportunity.  They refused to listen to any concerns from the other side about their plans.  They tried to move much more quickly than the school system or the community were obviously ready for.   They rejected any attempts towards compromise that might buy them some more public support for their plans.  And so here they are, two years later, with the control snatched away from them by a public that didn't like their radicalism.

So what happens now?  Who knows.  Will the Democratic majority put a stop to the choice plan?  We'll have to see.  I doubt the rifts dividing the community about how we should structure our school system will be settled any time soon.

However, I am hopeful that the new majority will have learned a lesson from the past two years, and proceed with a more respectful, more deliberative, more consultative, and more compromising approach than their predecessors did.

UPDATE:  The political commentator for the local News & Observer has a good article analyzing the Republican defeat, which echoes and expands upon some of my points above.

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