Former Wake County school board member Tom Oxholm did his best Peter Finch impersonation in a speech on school funding during Saturday's Great Schools in Wake Coalition forum.
In a speech mixed with data and fiery words, Oxholm implied that members of the school board majority are demagogues who don't know what they're talking about financially. He also threw in a New Jersey dig and explained that the move to socioeconomic diversity he helped implement in 2000 was done for financial reasons because they didn't have enough money for academic programs.
"Our assignment decision was never designed to help any particular student," Oxholm said of the board's vote in 2000. "Test scores for any one individual were not taken into account because of their school assignment and we knew it wouldn't make them any better a student. We also knew it wouldn't make them any worse of a student."
Much of Oxholm's talk revolved around Wake being underfunded compared to school districts such as Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Charlotte-Mecklenburg.
He said the $2,100 more per student that Chapel Hill gets in local funding would equal $300 million a year in Wake. He said that would be enough to get everyone in Wake up to grade level and to graduate. But he said that's in the pipe dream category.
Oxholm then took on the Harlem Children's Zone Project in New York City, which has been used by supporters of the board majority to argue that high-poverty schools can succeed.
Oxholm said the children in the Harlem Children's Zone are getting $21,500 a year compared to $8,000 in Wake. He said that $21,500 per student includes $5,000 per student that has to be donated annually from the private sector forever.
While the test results are showing "remarkable progress" in the Harlem's Children Zone, Oxholm said that's only looking at the 1,200 students in the charter schools and not all 10,000 kids in the zone.
Oxholm then took on the contention that savings from reducing busing would lead to more money for Southeast Raleigh high-poverty schools.
With the state controlling most of Wake's transportation funding, Oxholm said any savings would largely go back to the state.
Oxholm said Wake's share of the transportation funding, which he claimed was only $6 million a year (a number lower that what school officials have said) covers bus drivers, mechanics and repairs and maintenance. He questioned how you could cut those areas.
"Read my lips, there's no money to be saved in busing that can be applied to something else," Oxholm said. "So when you hear that, put the brakes on that rubbish. Once again it's sound bites from people who don't really understand the budget process or how funding works in North Carolina."
Moving to comparing Wake and Charlotte's funding, Oxholm said CMS has gotten $417 million more than Wake over a nine-year period. He said the improvement in test scores shows that spending money can help on certain problems. But he said it will stop helping when you don't provide the money any longer.
Oxholm said that $417 million a year would equal $45 million more a year in Wake, or $4,500 a year to tutor all 10,000 high school students below grade level. He said that isn't going to happen.
Looking at the difference in local dollars only, Oxholm said CMS spent between an average of $129 to $330 more per child per year than Wake. He said at $129 more per student per year would equal $18 million a year more in Wake.
Oxholm then moved back to how Wake's test scores rose sharply toward the goal of having 95 percent of third- through eighth-graders passing by 2003. He said that was accomplished without more money.
Oxholm said the follow up goal to extend it to 95 percent in all grade levels wasn't reached because of a lack of additional funding. (He didn't attribute any of it to how the state making the exams harder knocked down passing rates so much that the goal was practically impossible.)
Oxholm then moved to the decision that was made when he was on the school board in 2000 to switch from using racial diversity to socioeconomic diversity. He said it was done to create healthy schools.
"The assignment pattern changed from race based to socioeconomic was designed that we didn't want any bad schools," he said. "We never said that 'you know what we're going to make this student group do better and this student group may not.' That never happened. We wanted to avoid becoming like every large urban school system in America."
Oxholm said school system like South Central Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston, Richmond and Atlanta "have failed" and "aren't repairable" without billions of dollars.
"We're not like those other cities and I don't know about you but I don't want to be like those cities," Oxholm said. "People have been moving here to get away from those other cities. Some of those people who move here want to make us like from where they came from. I don't understand that but everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not their own set of facts."
The preceding remarks drew laughter.
Oxholm said that Charlotte, which is now facing the closure of schools, is in danger of becoming like Atlanta and all those other cities. He said that's coming for Wake in the future.
"I don’t blame a demagogue for believing he's the only one who knows the solution," Oxholm said to more laughter. "Demagogues always blame something. They quote facts and they absolutely believe and know they're right.
I don't blame that kind of person. But the citizens, the business community, the voters who think let’s give them a try, they may be right, they may have a better way, those folks wake up years later and wonder what happened. We need to wake up those folks now."
He said whining that other districts have more money isn't the answer. But he said they can ask county commissioners for more money as part of a new goal and if they don't reach it then they can take it away.
He said Wake will never catch up to the rest of the country in funding.
"With our expected growth we'll never have the stability of a four-school system in New Jersey, It's not going to happen," Oxholm said to laughter. "But we can have a community where we have no bad schools. We already do and we need to keep that working."
Borrowing from Finch's famous line in "Network," Oxholm closed by urging the crowd to get up out of their seats, go to the doors of the McKimmon Center, throw them open and yell "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore."