Big Issues, Little Agreement in Redistricting Debate

New Hanover County, NC – If Tuesday's meeting is anything like the first two, it will exemplify the power redistricting has to bring out passion in its speakers.

At last week's meeting at Murray Middle School, Reverend Hudson Barksdale of Gregory Congregational Church warned school board members: If you continue to attempt to deny a quality education by re-segregating our schools, we shall defy you by every legitimate, nonviolent means at our disposal.

Speaking after him, Jack Kilbourne, the father of a first grader at Wrightsville Beach Elementary School, argued for sending children to the closest schools possible.

I hope that you guys do what's best for the students, Kilbourne said, and not what's best for the social architects, who enjoy doing something because it makes them feel powerful.

Those two voices - one arguing for engineered integration, the other for neighborhood schools - would sound familiar to school systems across the country struggling with these questions. Winthrop University political science professor Stephen Smith studies redistricting and says over the past decade, American public schools have become less racially integrated, due to court challenges and changing demographics. Schools systems are left with two main approaches for dealing with historically low-performing student groups.

The first strategy, according to Smith, is basically to disperse the students who come from challenging backgrounds, who face special difficulties in their education among other students. The other strategy is to accept the fact that you have large numbers of low-income children concentrated in particular schools. And that situation requires school boards to spend a lot of extra money.

How to handle its diverse student body is a perpetual debate for New Hanover County, which last re-assigned its elementary schools five years ago, using a system that did take racial and economic integration into account. Redistricting is always a time-consuming and contentious process. One that board chair Donald Hayes says has the benefit of getting lots of parents involved. But it's not one from which they'll necessarily come away happy. I really think we try to do what's in the best interest of all children. Some parents, no matter what we do, are going to disagree with that.

And memories do linger. Suzanne Sloan, a kindergarten teacher at Parsley Elementary, collected four pages of signatures on a petition to keep children in her neighborhood at a nearby school, but says she encountered some unexpected resistance in the process.

Several ladies said, I fought this when my kids were in schools, and I lost, and good luck to you, and I'm not going to support you.' They swore they were never going to fight the school board again, because they lost.

This long-running debate has taken its toll on the other side, as well. Lisa Wade's two small children ride the bus every day from the Village at Greenfield across town to Bradley Creek Elementary. Speaking outside last week's redistricting forum, Wade said her community didn't mind busing, but she wants to see the burden shared.

There's going to be a group of children that are going to be bused. Black children in black neighborhoods have been bused for so long and I feel that now white children are being bused, it's become a real issue.

For both sides, it's not an debate that's anywhere near being settled. The Board of Education intends to issue its final redistricting map in August, to take effect in the fall of 07. But with the county continuing to grow rapidly, this battle is hardly the end of the war.

Megan Williams, WHQR News

The final Public Forum on Redistricting will take place Tuesday, May 30, at 7pm in the gynasium of Laney High School.

You can find more information, including both proposed redistricting maps, at the New Hanover County Schools' website