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Political Control of Wake County Board Hinges on Runoff

Ron Margiotta

The conservative-leaning chairman of the nine-member Wake County, N.C., school board was ousted from his seat Tuesday in a fiercely contested and closely-watched election that garnered more than $400,000 in campaign spending overall.

According to the unofficial results, Democratic newcomer Susan Evans took 52.1 percent of the vote, compared to 47.8 percent for Chairman Ron Margiotta.

A second school board race, between Democratic board incumbent Kevin Hill and Republican newcomer Heather Losurdo, appears headed for a runoff. The winner would have needed at least 50 percent of the vote for an outright win, and Hill garnered 49.7 percent in a four-person field. Losurdo received 39.9 percent. The runoff election is scheduled for Nov. 8.

In all, Democrats took the most votes in all of the five races that were under contest. The turnout for this election was about 21 percent, compared to 11.4 percent two years ago, the last time there were school board elections. Four other seats, currently held by Republican board members, were not up for election. If Hill wins the runoff next month, control of board will flip from Republican to Democratic hands.

Margiotta, who had served on the board for eight years, was at the helm in 2009 when Republican-affiliated candidates became a majority on the nominally nonpartisan board. The board then voted to dismantle the district's nationally known policy of assigning students to schools based on socioeconomic diversity, saying they wanted to return to neighborhood schools.

The move set off a cascade of consequences. The superintendent abruptly resigned, saying he could no longer in "good conscience" work for the system, which enrolls nearly 147,000 students. The Washington Post wrote an article suggesting that tea party-affiliated political powers had engineered a board takeover. The NAACP held marches, and many in the community spoke up in favor of a school board policy based on integration. The agency that accredits the district's high schools placed it on "accredited warned" status, specifically criticizing Republican board members for creating discord.

Local groups clearly saw the elections as an opportunity to either wrest control from the current majority, or solidify it. From the News & Observer:

The election followed months of campaigning that took on an increasing vitriolic tone, with much of the most heated material coming from Democratic-leaning organizations not formally tied to the candidates. A record total of at least $400,000 was raised during the campaign, fueling a stream of campaign mailers, television ads and radio ads.

Finance reports released Tuesday showed one group, Common Sense Matters, had spent more than $52,000 in mailers attacking Margiotta and Losurdo. The group received funding for the mailers from an organization that got some of its money from the N.C. Association of Educators.

Margiotta was portrayed as a divisive leader who was a tool of the tea party, endangering Wake schools' reputation and millions in federal funding. Evans was shown side by side in a mailer with state NAACP leader the Rev. William Barber, in a communication that Democrats complained as having a racist tone.

The current board, which hired retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Anthony Tata as superintendent last year, appears to favor a "controlled choice" school assignment policy that will offer parents several options on which school their children will attend. District leaders say they can offer choice without creating more schools with a majority of poor students, but some of the Democratic school board candidates have said they're concerned that the proposal does not adequately address that concern.

Wake County School Board Chairman Ron Margiotta tries to quell protesters during a 2010 school board meeting, when the board voted to stop busing students for diversity. (Travis Long/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT/File)

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