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CMS vs. the suburbs

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Twelve years ago, the school board declared war on the suburbs. That war would eventually break the county financially, destabilize the school system and launch middle-class flight.

Last Tuesday, the chickens finally came home to roost. At a school board meeting that at times threatened to turn violent, minority parents accused school board members of racism. The board closed or reconfigured a long list of schools with heavy minority and poor populations to save money. Understandably, outraged protestors believed this to be an assault on poor minorities, given that whiter, more suburban schools were left untouched.

They're right in their instinct that their children will pay the price for the fiasco school leaders created over the last decade, but not for the reasons they think.

Rewind to 1997, when white suburban parents sued to end busing for racial integration. The school system fought them bitterly in court, but lost. In retribution, the school board's majority and Superintendent Eric Smith decided to starve the then-booming suburbs of school-building dollars. The formula used to calculate where schools should be built was jiggered to show negative growth in the suburbs during a time when the county regularly ranked among America's top 10 fastest-growing places due largely to suburban growth.

Suburban schools were allowed to burst at the seams while the school system went on a billion-dollar building spree, throwing up schools in low-income areas where the bulk of the county's growing population didn't actually live. This was by design. The courts had blocked the school system from busing kids by race to achieve school diversity. They would use space to achieve it instead.

Eventually, school leaders believed, suburban schools would overflow and occupancy would violate fire codes. Suburban, mostly white children would be forced into the half-filled urban schools. Diversity could still be achieved through spite.

Waddell High School, the focus of much of the crowd's anger Tuesday night, was a classic spite school. In a contentious 5-4 vote, the school board decided to bypass desperately overcrowded suburban areas and locate Waddell just a few miles from struggling Olympic High School in a lower population west side area.

Waddell was state of the art, with science labs and a media center that most school districts would envy. Yet it opened half full in 2001 and struggled to attract students while bursting suburban schools were forced to hold classes in their gyms. Waddell was closed Tuesday as a high school and will be replaced with a magnet school.

Between 2001 and 2004, 17 new schools were built. Of those, just four were in booming suburban areas of the county. Dozens more urban schools were renovated from top to bottom. Some of this made sense. Because of the lawsuit, minority kids would be returning to neighborhood schools that were decrepit and needed to be renovated.

But the school board took its construction orgy to levels so outrageous that classes in new urban schools were half full with ratios of 15 kids to a teacher. The school board blew a billion dollars on school construction, doubling the county's debt load while the population only grew by 28 percent. By 2010, Wake County had 6,000 more students than Mecklenburg did, but 17 fewer schools.

In the process, the school board made a terrible miscalculation. It wrongly assumed that suburbanites would put their kids on buses to half-empty urban schools once suburban ones burst at the seams. Instead, parents began to bypass absurdly overcrowded schools here and moved to Union and York counties. The board alienated an entire generation of suburban parents who could have diversified our schools, the vast majority of whom had nothing to do with the busing lawsuit. While thousands of new children a year showed up to school in neighboring counties, our schools bled middle-income white kids. In 1998, our schools were 58-percent white. Today they are 33 percent; the schools built to hold them remain partially full.

Worse yet, the county is now struggling to operate its schools and libraries while paying down its enormous school construction debt. On Tuesday, the school board took the first step in cleaning up this mess, closing down and consolidating schools so that they can get back to the business of educating kids.

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