Political controversy roils NC school system at center of resegregation fight

Wake County school students, in a still from "Koch Brothers Exposed."

The North Carolina public school system whose innovative and nationally lauded desegregation policy was targeted for elimination by conservative activists is embroiled in fresh controversy, as the new Democratic-led school board majority has fired the superintendent hired by the previous Republican-controlled board.

The move complicates relations with the Republican-led county commission that funds the schools -- and that could mean trouble for the fast-growing district, which was created by the legislature's forced 1976 merger of the largely white Wake County school system and the largely minority Raleigh City schools.

The Wake County School Board voted this week to fire Superintendent Tony Tata -- a former U.S. Army Brigadier General, military fiction writer and conservative commentator -- after less than two years into his four-year contract. Tata previously served as the chief operating officer of the Washington, D.C. public schools under controversial former chancellor Michelle Rhee, known for her aggressive reform efforts and anti-union sentiments. Tata is a graduate of Broad Superintendents Academy, a program founded by businessman, philanthropist and school reform advocate Eli Broad to train corporate executives, military leaders and other non-educators to lead public school systems.

Board leaders blamed the firing on strained relationships with Tata and problems with bus logistics and a botched rollout of a new school assignment plan. He leaves with a severance package of $253,625 to cover a year's salary and other costs. His temporary replacement is Stephen Gainey, the district's human resources chief.

The latest political unrest roiling North Carolina's largest school system can be traced back to 2009, when elections were held for four of nine officially nonpartisan school board seats. Conservative candidates won all of those races, joining an ally already on the board to create a new conservative majority. The acknowledged architect of the conservative takeover was former state Rep. Art Pope -- a businessman, leading conservative donor, and backer of groups that advocate school privatization. Pope is also a national director of the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, whose North Carolina chapter worked on behalf of the conservative candidates.

The conservatives ran on a platform that called for ending the district's innovative diversity policy. Instituted in 2000 in response to court rulings that held such policies could not consider race, the policy instead considered socioeconomic status, limiting the percentage of students in each school receiving free or reduced-price lunches to avoid the problems associated with concentrated poverty. It did so through a combination of busing and creating high-quality magnet schools in inner-city Raleigh neighborhoods to attract students from more affluent suburbs.

As a result of the policy, the Wake public school system had the highest rate of contact between black and white students in the nation. In 2009, the typical black student in Wake County attended a school where whites accounted for 45 percent of their peers, according to a recent report by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. In comparison, the figures for Memphis, Tenn. and Miami are under 15 percent.

While the diversity policy had strong support in inner-city Raleigh communities, it was less popular in the area's booming suburbs, where many parents grew frustrated with long bus rides and school reassignments and pushed for a return to neighborhood schools, which would inevitably be much more segregated because of historic housing patterns.

When the Republicans captured control of the school board, they immediately moved to end the diversity policy and move toward a student assignment plan that emphasized parental choice. The decision led to the resignation of former superintendent Del Burns and triggered an outcry from the public. Protesters marched through the streets of Raleigh and disrupted school board meetings, leading to arrests. The North Carolina chapter of the NAACP filed a federal civil rights complaint. And diversity supporters organized, creating the Great Schools in Wake Coalition and the student-led group N.C. HEAT to challenge the board's actions.

The board's move to end the diversity policy even got national attention -- much of it unflattering. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he found the decision "troubling." On the popular satirical comedy show The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert skewered the move in a segment titled "Disintegration," asking "What's the use of living in a gated community if my kids go to school and get poor all over them?" The controversy was also featured in the Robert Greenwald documentary film "Koch Brothers Exposed," which focused on the conservative oil barons' connection to the Wake controversy through Americans for Prosperity, which was founded and is funded by the Kochs.

All that anger and organizing led to a backlash at the polls in the 2011 election. With unusually high voter turnout, Democrats took back the board majority. This past June, the board directed staff to come up with an address-based assignment plan for the 2013-14 school year that takes diversity into account, using student achievement as a proxy for socioeconomic status. But when staff presented the plan earlier this month, the board's majority complained that it did not adequately address how to keep some schools from having too many low-performing students.

Meanwhile, serious problems emerged with the existing choice-based plan at the start of the current school year, when thousands of students and their families were impacted by a shortage of buses. There were horror stories of buses never showing up, dropping off children on the wrong side of busy highways, and speeding through residential neighborhoods in an effort to stay on schedule. Though Tata said he took responsibility for the problem, it was the school system's transportation manager who ended up out of a job. There were also problems with a test version of a new address-based assignment plan, which Tata and his staff pressed to make public over the objections of the board majority.

Last week, rumors began floating that the board was considering firing Tata, with local Republican Party chair Susan Bryant sending out an email warning of possible action by "the radical extremists who have taken over the Wake County School Board." Board members met in closed session on Monday, Sept. 24 to discuss the matter but failed to get the two-thirds majority needed to add a personnel item to its agenda. But when it met again the following day, it voted 5-4 along partisan lines to fire Tata.

Now there are concerns that the firing could hurt the school system. Last week, a conservative advocacy group called the Wake County Taxpayers Association -- the first group that Tata spoke to after his hiring -- filed a formal complaint with AdvancED, the school system's Atlanta-based accrediting body, alleging mismanagement and claiming that the board's party-line votes "have resulted in unnecessary fear and uncertainty with parents and disenfranchised stakeholders." AdvancED's CEO has expressed concerns about the ongoing instability.

That's not the first threat to accreditation the system has faced: In 2010, the N.C. NAACP filed a complaint with AdvancED over actions by the previous board, including elimination of the diversity policy. AdvancED placed the system's high schools on "accredited warned" status, criticizing the Republican-led board for "launch[ing] a premeditated act that resulted in destabilizing the school system and community," referring to the decision to abruptly end the diversity policy. In response, the Republican-led board took steps to improve governance and retain accreditation, though it did not back off from its opposition to diversity efforts.

There are also threats to the school system's finances. Wake County schools get their funding from the Wake County Board of Commissioners, which is controlled by Republicans and chaired by Paul Coble, who favors neighborhood schools. Coble is the nephew of deceased former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms of Raleigh -- a staunch segregationist who opposed busing for integration -- and has said he credits his uncle for shaping his conservative principles.

The school board and county commission are set to begin meeting next month to discuss a $1 billion school construction bond issue that would go before the voters next year. But in an interview with WRAL, Coble criticized the board's decision to fire Tata as "very partisan" and raised questions about future funding:

"Will the county commission vote to give $1 billion to a school board that has no leadership and, at this point, has no real plan? … How can we possibly decide where we're going to put schools, build new schools, when there's no effective reassignment plan and there's no real leadership."

In the meantime, concerns remain about the resegregation of Wake schools. The report released last week by the Civil Rights Project notes that while the school system is far more integrated than most, that integration is slipping. While the typical black student in Wake County attended a school where whites accounted for 45 percent of their peers in 2009, that was down from 54 percent in 2002. And a recent analysis by the nonprofit news website Raleigh Public Record found that despite claims that school poverty levels would remain stable under Wake's choice-based assignment plan, the poorest schools were getting poorer at a much higher rate than more affluent schools.

"Future enrollment data for the Raleigh metro should be closely monitored to ascertain the impact of recent policy changes to the district's voluntary integration policy," the Civil Rights Project concluded.