CARY — Wake County school board members dumped Keith Sutton as their chairman on Tuesday, replacing him with Christine Kushner in a move that shakes up leadership of the state’s largest school district.
School board members didn’t explain why they replaced Sutton, who had hoped to be re-elected as chairman for a second one-year term. Sutton had served as chairman during a year in which the board hired Jim Merrill to be the new superintendent, convinced the public to back an $810 million school construction bond issue and held off efforts by county commissioners to take over owning and building schools.
“It’s not about one person,” Kushner said in interviews after the vote. “It’s about us coming together as a board.”
Kushner said that there had been talk the past few weeks about a leadership change, but she didn’t explain what the discussion covered. She and other board members publicly praised Sutton on Tuesday for his service as chairman.
Kushner received support from seven of the nine board members. Sutton got his own vote and that of Monika Johnson-Hostler, the Southeast Raleigh resident elected this year to represent southeastern Wake County.
After the vote, Sutton spoke from his board seat, asking his supporters “to trust God.”
“I have, I hope, served both you and the community well and made you proud,” Sutton said.
‘It was a shocker to me’
In an interview, Sutton said he knew that there were efforts by some board members to replace him.
“I won’t say I was perfect,” Sutton said. “But I’m proud of what we accomplished during my tenure.”
But Raleigh City Councilman Eugene Weeks, who represents many of Sutton’s constituents in Southeast Raleigh, said he was disappointed that his counterpart on the school board wasn’t re-elected as chairman.
He said Sutton brought consensus to the board and helped worked through disagreements with the Wake County commissioners – ultimately leading to a successful school bond referendum.
“He’s done an outstanding job,” Weeks said. “He took it to another level. ... I thought he would be re-elected.
“It was a shocker to me.”
Kushner said that there had been talk the past few weeks about making a change. She declined to elaborate.
“The board ought to come clean and say why he didn’t deserve a second term,” said the Rev. Earl Johnson, president of the Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association, which has advocated on behalf of the African-American community since 1932.
Johnson said that Kushner will be a good board chairwoman but that the change makes the school board look dysfunctional. He said that Sutton’s role as an African-American male leader was a positive for the community.
Johnson said that although he doesn’t think it was done for racial reasons, people in the African-American community will take note that Sutton didn’t get a vote from a single white board member. Sutton and Johnson-Hostler are the only African-Americans on the school board.
Board member Jim Martin said after the meeting that members had been negotiating with Sutton to get a unanimous vote for Kushner but that the efforts fell through. He said there were no racial overtones to the vote.
Departure from precedent
Board chairs have traditionally been allowed to serve for consecutive one-year terms. Exceptions occur, such as when a new Republican majority took office in 2009 and replaced Kevin Hill as the chairman.
But the current board is under a Democratic majority that expanded its control after this fall’s elections. Seven board members, including Sutton and Kushner, are registered Democrats. One board member used to be a Democrat before switching to unaffiliated. The ninth board member is a registered Republican who has sided with the other board members on several key issues
The vote points to potential rifts among the board members, who face issues of student assignment, suspension guidelines and control of school construction.
“The community shouldn’t expect all nine of us to agree all the time,” Kushner said after being elected chairwoman.
Tom Benton was unanimously elected as vice chairman to replace Kushner at a meeting in which the four board members who were elected in October were sworn into office. Newcomers Zora Felton and Johnson-Hostler were joined by returning board members Benton and Bill Fletcher.
Kushner and Sutton said the change in leadership shouldn’t produce major changes in the board’s direction because members agree on the big issues.
“I don’t think it signals any issues,” Sutton said. “It just signals a change in leadership, perhaps a change in leadership style.”
Kushner was among the members elected in 2011 who shifted control of the board. Sutton has been on the board since 2009.
On Tuesday, the board unanimously approved an assignment plan for the 2014-15 school year that calls for not moving any students to different schools next year. No one will be moved because school administrators have begun work on a plan that would reassign thousands of students for the 2015-16, 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years.
The main goal of the new three-year assignment plan is to fill 14 new schools opening around the county.
But administrators will also look at the attendance lines for all 170 existing schools to see if they’re aligned with the student assignment policy’s goals of promoting student achievement, stability, proximity and efficiently using school facilities.
Laura Evans, the senior director of student assignment, said the public would have the first chance to see a draft plan in February when it’s presented to the school board advisory councils. Revisions would be made before an official plan is presented to the school board in September with a final vote scheduled for October.
“We want to be as transparent as possible,” Evans said.
Staff writer Colin Campbell contributed to this report.