Oct. 8, 2009

Small turnout brings big changes  

Three school board candidates who were highly critical of current school system policies easily won seats in Tuesday’s elections, fueled in large part by a growing unhappiness with the district’s student assignment policies.

The fourth and final seat in this year’s school board election appears headed for a runoff between Cathy Truitt and John Tedesco. The winner will represent District 2 in southeast Wake County.  District 2 incumbent Horace Tart finished third among four active candidates.

Overall turnout in the four districts was less than 12 percent, but Chris Malone, Deborah Prickett and Debra Goldman all won their seats convincingly. The winning margins ranged from 58 percent to 64 percent.

Malone will represent District 1 in the eastern part of the county. Goldman will represent District 9 in Cary. Prickett will represent the northeast part of the county in District 7. All three ran campaigns that supported neighborhood schools and were critical of the system’s reassignment policies. The school system’s goal of maintaining socio-economic diversity in the schools was a focal point of the election.

A review of precinct vote totals offers a clear picture of where candidates’ found the most support for their messages.

In the eastern part of the county, Malone’s totals were often double that of his opponent in the towns of Wake Forest and Rolesville. In northeast Wake, Prickett won handily in almost every precinct, but ran especially strong in precincts in and around Brier Creek where reassignments and mandatory year-round schools have been a hot topic.

 In Cary, Goldman won all but one precinct, but her strength was generally found in the developments and subdivisions beyond the informal boundaries of what many now call “old Cary” following two decades of explosive growth.

In District 2, Tart’s inability to force a runoff can largely be attributed to his showing in areas of Fuquay-Varina in the far southeast. Tart lives in that area of the county and was expected to do well there.District2

Instead, Tedesco outpolled Tart and Truitt in all but two precincts, falling only 42 votes short of an outright majority based on unofficial returns. Truitt, however, forced the runoff by winning a single precinct in Garner by almost 90 votes and coming up with a tie in a second precinct as shown to the right.

Truitt filed a letter with the Board of Elections on Wednesday requesting a runoff if the vote totals are confirmed.

Truitt also quickly positioned herself as the “swing vote” on what is surely to become a more divided school board when the three winners of Tuesday’s election join board member Ron Margiotta of western Wake. Margiotta is often the sole critic of reassignment policies on the current board.

Throughout the day Tuesday, Truitt told people “busing is dead,” but she believes defacto segregation can be avoided with greater use of school choice programs. The runoff election will be Nov. 3.


SAS report takes issue with Wake schools

One of the more unusual last-minute developments in the school board contest was a report written by SAS three months ago that says the school system’s accountability model fails to identify many poor and minority students who could otherwise succeed in more challenging courses.
William Sanders and June Rivers, who are among the report’s authors, said they had no interest in seeing the report released just before the election. It was delivered to Superintendent Del Burns’ office June 30, but not given to school board members until Oct. 2 when it was requested by board member Ron Margiotta.

SAS wrote the report in response to a document produced by Wake’s Evaluation and Research Department. 

While the SAS report offers no opinions about Wake’s reassignment efforts or diversity policies, opponents distributed it as proof the diversity policy fails to help poor students.

Such an interpretation, Sanders said, misses a far more important point. According to the report, a SAS product known as EVAAS can predict with far better accuracy than Wake’s model which students are likely to succeed in eighth-grade “gatekeeper” courses such as Algebra 1.

Educators consider Algebra 1 a critical class because it demonstrates and develops a student’s ability to apply math knowledge, showing they can think critically. It also sets a student’s academic path in high school.

“If you don’t complete Algebra 1 in eighth grade, it eliminates a whole slug of college majors before you even get to high school,” said Sanders. Sanders is widely regarded as one of the nation’s experts in statistical analysis of education data.

David Holdzkom, Wake’s assistant superintendent of evaluation and research, said Wake has looked closely at the EVAAS model and sees no significant differences in the results the two models generate.

But the two models have key philosophical differences. Wake County, for example, uses variables such as a student’s socio-economic status and special education categories to adjust expected scores. The SAS model draws solely on previous test scores.

Wake’s model also computes averages using only Wake scores instead of comparing students to an overall state average. Holdzkom said Wake’s model generates a more specific result and ensures higher standards because Wake students routinely score higher than the state average.

Sanders strongly disagreed, saying models that adjust expectations for poor students are fundamentally flawed and prohibited by federal standards. Most importantly, he said, Wake’s approach isn’t working when it comes to pushing poor and minority students toward harder classes.

Wake school principals are permitted to use EVAAS, but Holdzkom said the district does not feel obliged to make them use it.

EVAAS can be used free by North Carolina school systems. Sanders said SAS is also willing to pay for principal and teacher training to use the software. But Sanders said he does not feel Wake has any interest in using a competing model.

The board is scheduled to hear a report from Holdzkom on the issue at its Oct. 20 meeting.


Tapping into a different approach

School board members revisited a discussion this week about a small program known as TAP that could become increasingly important if the issue of high-poverty schools takes on new importance under a new school board.

TAP is a national program, typically used in poorer schools, that pays teachers more if their students exceed certain goals. It was used last year at Wilburn Elementary and the principal there told board members this week they largely considered it a success.

School administrators were wary of the program when the board discussed in June whether to apply for $10 million in federal money to pay the bonuses. The concern was schools would commit to the program and the system would be unable to afford it once the grant money ran out.

But Wilburn Principal Jennifer Carnes said the pay can be worked out at schools that already receive a certain amount of federal money under a different program known as Title I. Not all Title I schools would have enough money, she said, but it can work.

That triggered an even longer discussion by board members ending with a request to Superintendent Del Burns and his staff to come up with a list of which schools might benefit.

In the course of the conversation, board member Lori Millberg repeated her earlier statements that the system needs to acknowledge it can no longer meet its “healthy schools” goal of holding enrollments of low-income students to no more than 40 percent in all schools. About a third of the system’s 157 schools now exceed that goal.

Also notable was the timing of the board’s request to the staff. They would like an answer by Nov. 3. New board members will take office in December.



…  Wake County Commission Chairman Harold Webb was released from Rex Hospital Oct. 5 and is now at home. He suffered a stroke on Sept. 29.

… In a front-page column in today’s News & Observer, Rob Christensen offers some historical perspective on this week’s school board elections within the framework of race and politics in the South. The story can be found here.

… A story in Education Week reports that the high-profile effort to establish common academic standards across states has won a favorable review from a Washington group with a long history of work in the area of school accountability. Forty-eight states, including North Carolina, are part of the effort. The review of the standards was done by the Fordham Institute. 


Wake Education Partnership is a 501(c)(3) non-profit created in 1983 to support public schools, in part by educating the community on current school issues. Most of its financial support comes from local business. Send comments to Tim Simmons, VP Communications, at  tsimmons@wakeedpartnership.org