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Wake County, N.C., Board Changes Political Majority


In 2009, the board of the 147,000-student Wake County, N.C. gained new Republican members who, within a few months, scrapped a busing plan in the fast-growing district that favored placing students in schools based on their socioeconomic status. What was needed, they said, was a return to community-based schools.

In elections in October and last night, county voters flipped the board majority back to the Democrats.

Democratic-backed incumbent Kevin Hill, a supporter of the old school assignment process, won a runoff election with 52.3 percent of the vote against Republican-backed challenger Heather Losurdo, who garnered 47.7 percent of voters. Voter turnout was high for a school board election; 20,412 voters cast a ballot, compared to 16,332 who cast votes in the race back in October. Hill, who led his challengers then, did not get 50 percent of the vote, forcing Tuesday night's runoff. In October, a Republican-based incumbent lost, leaving the board evenly split with political control hinging on the Hill-Losurdo race.

So what does this mean for busing in the district? There will likely be no immediate changes. The change to the busing policy spawned widespread protests, including from the national media, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and the NAACP, though many parents supported the changes, saying they were tired of having their children shuffled from school to school as the district tried to manage growth and diversity.

But since the first burst of attention, the officially nonpartisan board has coalesced around a "controlled choice" plan that would offer parents a choice of several schools for their children, using student test scores as one of a series of factors in creating that list of choices. The goal would be to have students attend a school of their choice, but not one that has a high percentage of students with low scores on state tests.

Hill, a former teacher and principal, said he "would not suggest going back to the drawing board" on the plan, according to an interview in the Raleigh News and Observer. However, he does want a school assignment policy that gives low-achieving students a chance to attend high-acheiving schools, he said.

In another school board race that was influenced by controversial school boundary decisions, voters in Eden Prairie, Minn. elected a slate of candidates who ran in opposition to a boundary change that attempts to insure no one school has more than 25 percent of its students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

The turnout was high there as well, as school board races go. According to the Eden Prairie News, "the top vote-getters in the previous School Board election in 2009 garnered approximately 1,500 votes. This year, the top vote-getters brought in more than 3,500 votes."

The 9,700-student district has seen an influx of students whose parents are immigrants from Somalia. The boundary change shifted some of those students to other schools, and changed the district's setup to K-6 schools instead of K-4 schools.

The two members of the board who voted against the plan, John Estall and Holly Parker, were re-elected. So were two other newcomers, Karla Bratrud and David Espe. They ran together in a slate called BEEP.

Kim Ross, a strong supporter of the boundary change, was not re-elected.

Photo: Heather Losurdo offers a concession speech after losing to Democrat Kevin Hill in the Wake County school board District 3 runoff election on Nov. 8 in Raleigh, N.C. Democrats will now hold a 5-4 majority on the board. (Travis Long//The News & Observer/AP)

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