GARNER — For the past four years, the Wake County school board has been known for verbal and even on occasion physical confrontations between its members.
But as the nine board members began a two-day planning retreat on Friday, what struck them and those coordinating the event is how much they agree on things now.
The last two election cycles have resulted in the elimination of all the remaining conservative Republican board members, producing a near-complete Democratic majority.
“We’ve struggled as a board,” school board Chairwoman Christine Kushner said at the start of the meeting. “Wake County expects aspirational leadership. We now have a board of nine people dedicated to public education, dedicated to this school system.”
Board infighting heated up after the 2009 elections resulted in a 5-4 Republican majority. The 2011 elections flipped the board to a 5-4 Democratic majority. Arguments and votes often fell along partisan lines on issues such as the role of diversity in student assignment and who should be superintendent.
Last fall’s election produced a board of seven Democrats, a former Democrat and a Republican who was not endorsed by his own party.
Still, the new board hasn’t been completely harmonious. Members’ vote to replace Keith Sutton as chairman angered some leaders in the African-American community.
Equity a top issue
In their first retreat in more than a year, board members talked Friday at White Deer Park Nature Center in Garner about their goals for the next year and what they considered to be the hot-button topics facing the state’s largest school system.
“This retreat is all about making this board as sensitive as possible ... to addressing the challenges of providing a world-class education for our children,” said David Forbes, a sociologist, teacher, preacher and civil rights leader who is one of the meeting’s two facilitators.
Meeting in small groups, the board members came up with a very short list of issues, with the top item being providing equity so that students and teachers have what they need to be successful.
“It’s really the elephant in the room that we must all address,” Sutton said.
The level of agreement and the shortness of the list surprised John Connolly, a former superintendent who is the other meeting facilitator.
“If any board has the ingredients to be great, you have it in Wake County,” he said.
School board Vice Chairman Tom Benton said it speaks highly of the board that members came to a consensus.
“We’re starting from a place of reasonable harmony,” said board member Susan Evans.
But going forward, Sutton and board member Monika Johnson-Hostler said that when they talk about equity, they shouldn’t forget about the role race plays in the issue. Johnson-Hostler pointed to the statistics they reviewed Friday showing the lower graduation rates of African-American and Hispanic students compared with other groups.
“There’s a huge pressure being one of two African-Americans on the board,” she said.