The GOP Plan to Sabotage Raleigh’s Successful Growth

The area attracts more young families than any other. But conservative attacks on public education could change that.

Wake County purchased the shuttered Garner Town Square 10 theater in 2012 to convert it into a satellite campus that will ease overcrowding at a local high school.
National Journal
James Oliphant
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James Oliphant
Sept. 16, 2013, 7:37 a.m.

This art­icle is part of a weeklong Amer­ica 360 series on Raleigh. 

RALEIGH, N.C. — To get to the fu­ture Garner High School satel­lite cam­pus, you have leave the main road south of the city and find a wooded turnoff that leads to the rear of a huge, de­cay­ing shop­ping plaza. There, nestled in the trees near the school, is an aban­doned movie theat­er. Wake County bought the va­cant Garner Towne Square 10 prop­erty in early 2012 for $1.75 mil­lion, and will use it to ease the school’s severe over­crowding. The cinema, which fell vic­tim to the eco­nom­ic down­town, closed three years ago and has sat va­cant ever since. Now it will be used to house ninth-graders.

Still, that won’t solve the over­crowding is­sue com­pletely. Garner’s main cam­pus is al­most en­tirely sur­roun­ded by port­able mod­u­lar classrooms that take up nearly every avail­able plot of land, and the high school cur­rently op­er­ates at al­most double its ca­pa­city. It’s the price of suc­cess for a boom­ing met­ro­pol­it­an area. With a di­verse eco­nomy, tem­per­ate cli­mate, and re­l­at­ively low cost of liv­ing, Raleigh, and the sur­round­ing Wake County, is viewed as one of the most de­sir­able places to live in the na­tion; the re­gion con­tinu­ally ends up on best-of lists. Ac­cord­ing to a For­bes magazine study that culled data from the 2010 census, Raleigh leads the na­tion in at­tract­ing young fam­il­ies, hav­ing ex­per­i­enced the biggest in­crease over the last 10 years in kids ages 5 to 17.

Those kids have to go to school some­where. Since 2006, Wake County Schools have been adding 6,000 new stu­dents a year, push­ing the sys­tem to­ward a break­ing point. “We’re hav­ing a hard time keep­ing up,” says Joe De­sormeaux, the sys­tem’s as­sist­ant su­per­in­tend­ent for fa­cil­it­ies. The rap­id growth has led to the use of mod­u­lar classrooms on al­most every cam­pus and the use of an in­nov­at­ive year-round schedul­ing sys­tem that pla­toons sets of stu­dents to take max­im­um ad­vant­age of classroom space. It’s still not enough. The large ma­jor­ity of the sys­tem’s 170 schools are maxed out, even with the use of 11,000 tem­por­ary classrooms.

A bond is­sue on the bal­lot in Oc­to­ber would al­low the sys­tem to build about 30 more schools. But be­cause this is Raleigh, and be­cause North Car­o­lina is a state now gripped in an epic scorched-earth battle between con­ser­vat­ives and lib­er­als, its ap­prov­al won’t come eas­ily. Just about everything in the re­gion, down to loc­al level, has be­come deeply politi­cized.

Wit­ness the fur­or that de­veloped in 2010, when tea party-backed con­ser­vat­ives en­gin­eered a takeover of the Wake County School Board and ab­ol­ished a long-stand­ing in­teg­ra­tion policy that had sent sub­urb­an kids in­to hard­scrabble urb­an neigh­bor­hoods and in­ner-city kids to sub­urb­an schools in fa­vor of an ap­proach that em­phas­ized neigh­bor­hood schools. Crit­ics such as the NAACP ar­gued the sys­tem was re­vert­ing to se­greg­a­tion. Lib­er­als coun­ter­at­tacked and re­took the board in 2011.

At the same time, the state’s GOP-dom­in­ated Gen­er­al As­sembly has in­jec­ted it­self squarely in­to edu­ca­tion policy by ex­pand­ing the use of vouch­ers, which al­low low-in­come stu­dents to at­tend private schools, and charter schools, which will com­pete dir­ectly with tra­di­tion­al pub­lic schools. It has also frozen pay for K-12 teach­ers and elim­in­ated a salary in­crease for teach­ers who hold ad­vanced de­grees.

These re­cent fights have led some on the Wake County school board to fret openly that the sys­tem will lose good teach­ers to private schools or oth­er states — and that new fam­il­ies will stop re­lo­cat­ing to the re­gion in re­sponse. That would solve the county’s over­crowding prob­lem, but not in the way board mem­bers want.

Even John Te­desco, who was elec­ted as part of the con­ser­vat­ive bloc, is con­cerned about the Le­gis­lature’s ac­tions. “In all hon­esty, this is about to crash in a way that we have no clue,” Te­desco said at a school board meet­ing in Au­gust. “We keep talk­ing about want[ing] the best and the bright­est teach­ing our chil­dren, but we don’t provide the re­sources for them. Again, I’m a strong fisc­al con­ser­vat­ive. I’m a strong free-mar­ket guy. But one of the cruxes of any free-mar­ket sys­tem is com­pet­it­ive wages.”

The Wake County Re­pub­lic­an Party re­cently came out against the bond is­sue, much to the dis­may of loc­al of­fi­cials. De­sormeaux says that some crit­ics doubt the school is us­ing every avail­able foot of space it can for stu­dents, and they won­der if art, mu­sic, and spe­cial-edu­ca­tion rooms, which have few­er desks, can be con­ver­ted in­to reg­u­lar classroom space.

Mean­while, prom­in­ent loc­al em­ploy­ers such as Red Hat, a pub­licly traded open-source soft­ware firm, have lined up in fa­vor of the bond is­sue, say­ing the Wake schools are crit­ic­al to their abil­ity to re­cruit and re­tain tal­ent. “We have a ton of young fam­il­ies,” said DeL­isa Al­ex­an­der, an ex­ec­ut­ive vice pres­id­ent at the Raleigh-based com­pany. “We need good schools for our kids.”

The dis­trict de­lib­er­ately scaled down the bond is­sue to make it more polit­ic­ally ap­peal­ing. But that still may not do it. Part of the prob­lem is that the Wake County Com­mis­sion, which is con­trolled by the GOP, wants to take con­trol of school con­struc­tion from the board. It gives Re­pub­lic­ans a reas­on to op­pose the bond with the hope that if it fails and the sys­tem ends up in dire straits, the polit­ic­al jus­ti­fic­a­tion will ex­ist to seize con­trol. Cyn­ic­al? Yes. But par for the course these days in this deeply di­vided re­gion.

COR­REC­TION: An earli­er ver­sion of this story mis­stated when the is­sue would come be­fore voters. It is on the bal­lot for Oct. 8. It also mis­stated when the school board re­ver­ted to Demo­crat­ic con­trol. That was in 2011. 

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