Art Pope bankrolls candidates dismantling desegregation policy in NC school system

North Carolina's leading conservative benefactor, Art Pope played a critical behind-the-scenes role in the 2009 Wake County, N.C. school board race. At least one Republican leader called Pope the "architect" of a plan to elect a GOP majority committed to ending the county's nationally-recognized desegregation policy, which aimed to prevent pockets of high-poverty and racially-isolated schools.

With a new Wake school board election coming up on Oct. 11, Pope has emerged from the political shadows and gotten directly involved in this year's race as a top contributor to candidates who oppose the diversity policy and support a return to more demographically homogenous neighborhood schools.

An examination of his tactics in Wake County over the past few years offers a useful illustration of Pope's modus operandi: orchestrating strategies behind the scenes while also funneling money to a mix of candidates, party committees and advocacy groups that, while appearing separate, operate from the same playbook.

Instituted in 2000, Wake schools' desegregation policy sought to avoid the creation of have and have-not schools by limiting the number of children in any one school receiving free or reduced-price lunches. It did so by busing some inner-city students to suburban schools and by attracting suburban students to inner-city classrooms through innovative magnet programs.

According to an Institute for Southern Studies analysis of the most recent campaign report filings, Pope and his wife, Katherine, donated $4,000 each -- the maximum allowed by law -- to three GOP candidates who want to end Wake's diversity policy: current school board chair Ron Margiotta, and new candidates Heather Losurdo and Donna Williams.

Besides being opponents of the school system's diversity policy, Margiotta and Losurdo have come under fire for making racially-charged remarks -- Margiotta for referring to pro-diversity protesters as "animals," and Losurdo for using the acronym "LMAO" for "laughing my a-- off" in response to a Facebook posting by her husband that said, "The skunk has replaced the Eagle as the new symbol of the American Presidency. It is half black, half white, and everything it does stinks!"

Of the over 143,000 students in the Wake school system, the majority are students of color, with 49.5% white, 24.8% black, 14.6% Hispanic, 6% Asian, 4.5% multiracial and 0.4% American Indian.

Pope: Behind-the-Scenes Architect

Pope's direct involvement in funding the anti-diversity-policy candidates represents a departure from his role in the 2009 school board election, when he orchestrated support behind the scenes.

Pope contributed just over $15,000 that year to the Wake County Republican Party, which in turn funneled most of the money into the officially nonpartisan school board race. In an email later obtained by the News & Observer, a local GOP leader credited Pope with being the "architect" for party's electoral strategy in 2009 to elect anti-diversity policy candidates.

Pope is also the founder of Americans for Prosperity's North Carolina chapter, which carried out voter education and volunteer work that benefited Republican candidates in the 2009 Wake school board race. Created and funded by the Koch brothers, the conservative oil billionaires who own Koch Industries, Americans for Prosperity gets significant support from Pope.

Tax records show that since 2004 Pope's family foundation has given $2.2 million to AFP's sister group, the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which shares some resources with Americans for Prosperity. In turn, the national AFP organization supports state affiliates, including North Carolina's.

AFP-NC's organizing around Wake County school issues can be traced back to the 2006 election, when there was a $970 million local school bond issue on the ballot. AFP-NC took the lead in organizing opposition to the bond, using the controversy over student assignment as one of its rallying points. Though AFP-NC lost and the bond issue passed, the group continued to organize against the school board and the diversity policy, helping lead to the Republican takeover in 2009.

AFP-NC's involvement in the Wake schools was featured in a video released earlier this year by Brave New Foundation as part of its Koch Brothers Exposed project. Americans for Prosperity and its North Carolina chapter have also been involved in supporting the far-right tea party movement. For example, AFP-NC was behind the N.C. Tax Day Tea Party 2010, an effort to coordinate tea party protests across the state.

At one such protest in Raleigh, the featured speakers included newly-elected Republican Wake school board member John Tedesco, who became the GOP's point man in the push to dismantle the diversity policy. In his speech, he said the crowd stood for conservative values. "These kind of values need to be instilled in education," Tedesco said.

A climate of mistrust

Soon after the Republican majority was elected in 2009, the Wake school board voted to scrap the diversity policy and begin a return to neighborhood schools -- a move that led to raucous protests and the NAACP North Carolina chapter's filing of a federal civil-rights complaint that remains under investigation. A separate complaint by the NAACP also led to an investigation by AdvancED, the Wake school system's accrediting body.

The report AdvancED released in May 2011 charged the Republican school board majority with dividing the community and "creating a climate of uncertainty, suspicion and mistrust" by failing to give adequate notice of major actions and by making big policy changes -- such as the decision to scrap the diversity policy -- without compelling data.

Besides sparking public protests, the board's decision to end the diversity policy led the school system superintendent to resign in protest. To replace him, the board hired Tony Tata, a former Army brigadier general and graduate of the controversial Broad Superintendents Academy who served as chief operating officer for the D.C. public schools under the contentious chancellorship of Michelle Rhee.

Tata has overseen the development of a student assignment plan that eliminates any consideration of socioeconomic diversity and instead emphasizes parental choice. At a public hearing held this week about the proposal, speakers raised concerns about whether it would create the sort of have and have-not schools the diversity policy sought to avoid.

The board is set to vote on the assignment plan as soon as Oct. 18 -- one week after the school board election and before the new members are seated.

Pope's Network Back in Action

Meanwhile, the effort to maintain the board's Republican majority is getting help from other organizations and individuals closely allied with Pope.

Civitas Action, the political advocacy arm of the nonprofit Civitas Institute that was founded and is almost entirely funded by Pope (and which was approved as a provider of trainings for board members after the 2009 election), has jumped into the school board race -- and is supporting the same three Republican candidates backed by Pope and his wife.

This week, Civitas Action reported spending $6,063.99 on flyers (one pictured above) asking voters to "thank" Republicans Margiotta, Losurdo and Williams "for standing up for Wake taxpayers and our parents."

The flyers do not directly ask recipients to vote for the candidates, which would violate IRS rules that allow 501(c)(4) "social welfare" groups like Civitas Action to engage in some forms of political advocacy but not direct or indirect participation in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate. In the past, the group has defended such mailings as a form of "voter education."

In addition, the same three Republican school board candidates backed by Pope and Civitas Action -- plus one other GOP candidate, Cynthia Matson -- received $4,000 each from Wake County businessman Bob Luddy, a John Locke Foundation director and chair of the Civitas Institute. Luddy was the top contributor to the anti-diversity-policy electoral effort in 2009, contributing a total of $23,000 -- $18,000 to individual candidates and an advocacy group opposed to the diversity policy, plus another $5,000 to the Wake County GOP.

Thanks largely to support from Pope's family foundation, the John Locke Foundation and Civitas have long advocated shifting public education funds to private schools via voucher programs. Luddy specifically has called for a $2,500 tax credit for private-school students as a way of "encouraging alternatives to Wake County schools."

For Luddy, the push for public aid to private schools is not just an ideological ideal but a business interest: He is the owner of Thales Academy, a nonprofit chain of private schools in Wake County, N.C. that charge over $5,000 a year for tuition. Among the trustees for Luddy's private school in Apex, N.C. is Margiotta, the Wake school board chair -- leading at least one Democratic board member to question whether Margiotta's dual role detracts from his job as the public school system's "biggest cheerleader."

Like Pope, Luddy also has close ties to the Koch brothers, fellow supporters of school privatization. Along with the Popes, Luddy has also been an invited guest to the Kochs' annual secret gatherings of conservative businessmen.

Amid the heated controversy over school resegregation, this year's Wake County school board election is expected to set new records for campaign spending. A recent News & Observer analysis found that the 11 candidates spending enough to file required reports (of 14 total) have collected more than $238,000, with another $28,000 donated to political action committees. In 2009, the candidates raised just $155,000, though the amount donated to parties and PACs brought the total spent that year to over $340,000.

One-third of the money reported being raised so far this year has come from just five donors -- and this time around Republicans aren't the only ones spending generously to influence the outcome of the election. Besides the Popes and Luddy, the other two major contributors -- John and Ann Campbell, owners of a pharmaceutical consulting business -- are supporting the pro-diversity candidates.

So far, the Campbells have donated $40,000 to the five Democrats in the race. With five seats on the nine-member board up for grabs, the Democrats would have to win all of the races in order to recapture the majority.

But until Oct. 11, it looks like Art Pope will be using every piece of his political machine to make sure that doesn't happen.

For more on North Carolina powerbroker Art Pope, visit the Institute's special investigative project You can also follow on Twitter at @ArtPopeExposed.