The Wake County school system is denying that members of the school board's Democratic majority are being unduly influenced by the Great Schools in Wake Coalition.
As noted in today's article, Wake's school board attorneys are telling AdvancED that majority members are making decisions based on their independent judgment and not because of the influence of Great Schools or any other advocacy group. The Wake County Taxpayers Association had charged GSIW had "extreme influence" on the majority, particularly the new board members.
"The allegation that the Board members who voted in favor of the June 19 student assignment directive did so because of 'extreme influence' from GSIW is suppositional and wrong," says this report.
In fact, the Board members who voted to move away from the Choice Plan did so based on the many complaints they received from constituents, the data and information they received from staff, and their sincere and independent judgments that the plan was fundamentally flawed and could not be salvaged. Every member who voted for this directive strongly denies that they did so at the behest of GSIW or that they have ever subordinated the education of students to any partisan principle, group, interest, or personal ambition."
The report comments on the evidence provided by WCTA, which is the May 19 private email from GSIW chairwoman Yevonne Brannon urging people to lobby the school board to switch to an address-based plan for 2013.
"There is nothing nefarious about community members offering public comments at Board meetings, and it is fallacious to assume that any vote that happens to correspond with GSIW’s policy preferences must have resulted from the group’s 'extreme influence,'" says the report.
"It would be unfair to assume that those Board members who voted against the June 19 directive must have surrendered their independent judgment and done so based on the 'extreme influence' of the RCC or WEP," the report says.
The report goes on to note how the board majority opted to let the choice plan to go forward even though GSIW had publicly urged that it not be implemented at all. The report says the majority members agreed to develop an alternative to the choice plan "only after they became convinced that its implementation revealed serious and insurmountable problems."
"It is unreasonable to assume that, in voting for the June 19 directive, five Board members could only have been doing the bidding of an advocacy group they had disagreed with in the past," the report says. "This complaint allegation is entirely unsupported and without merit."
The report goes on to deal with the specific WCTA charge that new board members Susan Evans, Jim Martin and Christine Kushner "were and possibly still are active leaders" in GSIW.
The report quotes Evans as saying that while it's 'fair" to say she had a leadership role in GSIW, "she has not been of part of its leadership since becoming a member of the Board."
"More importantly, she strongly disclaims any suggestion that she has allowed the group to dictate her decisions as a Board member or that she has subverted her independent judgment to its interests or goals," the report says. "As indicated above, she did not agree with the group’s urgings to block implementation of the Choice Plan and did not heed those calls. This is an example of exercising independent judgment.
As a general matter, Ms. Evans listens carefully to the views of all community stakeholders, including not just GSIW but also RCC and WEP, while forming her own conclusions about matters of school system governance."
The report quotes Kushner as saying that she was involved with GSIW because she "supported many of its goals." She allowed her summaries of board meetings to be shared with GSIW, but says she stopped doing them after deciding to run for school board.
"Since she was elected to the Board in October 2011, Ms. Kushner has not considered herself to be a 'member,' let alone a 'leader' of GSIW,'" the report says. "She strongly denies having ever subverted her independent judgment as a Board member to the goals or aims of GSIW.
Like Ms. Evans, she has not always agreed with GSIW since becoming a Board member, and she solicits and listens carefully to all individuals and community groups who offer input while forming her own opinions."
The report doesn't mention the award that Evans and Kushner accepted from WakeUP Wake County on behalf of GSIW in January.
As for Martin, the report says that while he is "sympathetic to many of GSIW's concerns," he has never attended one of the group's meetings and doesn't consider himself to be a member.
Martin says in the report that while he allowed copies of comments he made to the board before his election to be shared and posted by GSIW members, "his comments were always his own."
"Like Ms. Evans and Ms. Kushner, he has not always agreed with GSIW and has based his decisions on facts, data, and his own judgment and values," the report says. "While he listens carefully to all input from community members and groups, he strongly denies ever subverting his independent judgment as a Board member to the goals or preferences of any other person or organization."
"In sum, there is no evidence that any official actions of Ms. Evans, Ms. Kushner, or Dr. Martin are the result of 'extreme influence' by GSIW, and all three understand and take very seriously their obligations to eschew partisanship and exercise independent judgment in the conduct of official business. There is no substance to this complaint allegation," the report says.
The report also responds the WCTA allegation that former school board chairman Kevin Hill allowed "offensive and intimidating behavior by members of GSIW” at board meetings that created a climate of “fear and uneasiness among citizens wishing to speak during public comment.”
"The record shows that Chair Hill, like Chair Margiotta before him, has been very patient and tolerant when presiding over public comment, even when comments are highly critical of himself, fellow Board members, or the Board as a whole," the report says. "He has stepped in where necessary to maintain order, but has not censored speakers for speaking with passion or even anger. This approach reflects a philosophical commitment to openness as well as sensitivity to the First Amendment rights of speakers.
There is no evidence that Mr. Hill has clamped down on speakers based on their viewpoints or that he has shown any favoritism to particular speakers during public comment periods. Nor is there any evidence that Mr. Hill’s patience and tolerance has created a climate of 'fear and uneasiness' that has deterred members of the public from speaking their minds on student assignment or other, sometimes controversial, issues.
Indeed, the record reflects that there has been a continuous stream of comments in support of and opposition to virtually every significant student assignment initiative over the past several years. Robust debate is the essence of democracy, even when it causes some discomfort."