Carolina Journal News Reports
The Wake County School Board faced an overflow crowd at Tuesday’s meeting.
RALEIGH — Wake County’s new conservative school board majority didn’t let a hostile crowd dampen their flair for the dramatic Tuesday, voting narrowly to reject a motion that would have let multiple law firms bid to conduct a performance audit of the school district’s legal fees.
The school board’s new majority wants to enter negotiations with Raleigh attorney Thomas Farr to review contracts with Tharrington Smith, the school board’s longtime legal counsel. But that’s met strong opposition from the board’s four-member minority, who held the reins of power on the board before this fall’s election.
In a turbulent debate often met by jeers from the crowd, board member Kevin Hill, who chaired the board until Ron Margiotta deposed him earlier in the month, questioned the fiscal wisdom of hiring a second law firm in tough economic times.
He added that rumors were being spread that the new majority intends to use Farr, who has ties to Republicans, to help build a case to dismiss for cause Superintendent Del Burns.
District 2 representative John Tedesco, part of the new conservative coalition, dismissed the rumor. “We intend to work with Mr. Burns,” he said.
Hill moved that the school board direct staff to create a request for proposals to allow law firms other than Farr’s to compete for the job.
“If we did an RFP, the community would be much more comfortable with knowing that a thoughtful decision was made,” Hill said.
His motion failed by a 5-4 margin, with Margiotta casting the deciding vote against.
During the six-hour meeting, school district staff also briefed board members on the financial implications of scuttling work on Forest Ridge High School, a controversial project in northeast Raleigh. In addition, Tedesco moved to withdraw a motion to clarify language on the board’s approach to mandatory reassignments to year-round schools.
Earlier in the evening, a standing-room-only crowd packed the school board room and snaked into a nearby hall. Those fortunate enough to get seats frequently applauded, laughed, or booed during a three-hour public comment period. Many of the 48 residents who addressed the board spoke against the neighborhood schools agenda and blasted conservative board members.
Raleigh resident Gary Dismukes called the school board’s new agenda “small-minded and racist” and said that conservative members lacked a mandate for action.
Others suggested that supporters of the new majority were against public schools. “We all know there are some powerful people in this county who want the public schools to fail,” said Matthew Brown of Raleigh. “They want people to take their kids out of the public schools and put them in private schools.”
Although a majority of speakers assailed the board’s new policies, a handful of those who spoke praised the board for its quick action.
“I think you’ve got a mandate, and I think you’re going to go slow and do what’s right for the children of Wake County,” said former state Rep. Russell Capps.
Capps also referenced a poll, released Tuesday by the conservative Civitas Institute, which found broad opposition among Wake County voters to socioeconomic-diversity busing and forced assignments to year-round schools, two policies that the new majority has promised to end.
Three-fourths of respondents in the poll said parents should be given a choice between year-round and traditional calendar schools. Sixty-eight percent opposed the busing policy.
The conservative majority has taken heat in recent weeks after unleashing an ambitious agenda at its first meeting Dec. 1 that included electing Margiotta as chair, ordering a study of mandatory reassignments to year-round schools, and ending early release Wednesdays.
The school board was the brunt of widespread criticism after it was revealed that the incoming majority met privately several times before the swearing in ceremony to discuss strategy.
Left-leaning groups accused Margiotta and his allies of side stepping the state’s open meetings laws, but conservatives said the meeting was legal because the new members had yet to be sworn in.
David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.