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News & Observer

RALEIGH -- If success is sometimes defined as simply showing up, school board candidate Keith Sutton scored a clear victory at Thursday's forum for the District 4 seat on the Wake County School Board.

Incumbent Sutton's only opponent, Venita Peyton, chose not to appear at the forum. On Wednesday, she said she decided not to attend because organizers had not consulted her on the timing or location of the meeting. Instead, they informed her after the decision was made.

The forum was held at the Walnut Creek Wetland Center and sponsored by the League of Women Voters, WakeUp Wake County and the Southeast Raleigh Assembly.

Though speaking without an active opponent, Sutton did face pointed questions from audience members over longstanding concerns of the Southeast Raleigh community: What about student misbehavior, excessive suspensions, school choice and shrinking funding for a growing schools population?

Sutton cited as a success the popularity of the new Walnut Creek Elementary School, which has been provided with extra resources based on its high percentage of low-income students and those with records of lower achievement.

"The word has gotten out into the community," Sutton said. "It's a very attractive school."

Sutton, who is from Rocky Mount, introduced himself as having long experience in organizing and politics, including stints with the NAACP, the Urban League and the gubernatorial campaign of Gov. Bev Perdue. He told a crowd of about 50 he has the experience and credentials to advocate for people in the district, which is centered east of downtown.

"We don't have the time now for on-the-job training," Sutton said in an apparent reference to Peyton's lack of experience in public office.

Given Peyton's absence, the forum took on the nature of a community discussion, moderated by veteran Democratic leader Don Mial. Sutton pushed for initiatives such as:

Recruiting highly qualified teachers from out-of-state institutions, using means such as offering contracts in the summer before the school year begins.

Trying to find a solution to getting people from all parts of the county to meetings at the new school board headquarters in Cary. "It is very difficult for people to travel to Cary," said Lucille Webb, wife of former county commissioner Harold Webb, who also was present.

Finding more funding for the system, which has shrunk in per-pupil terms for several years. "We've passed budget cuts for the last three or four years, and we've grown each year," Sutton said. "That's an issue, and we need to try to address that."

Sutton noted that he and others asked that the board press county commissioners for more funding, but their motion failed to pass.

The still-incomplete student assignment plan would not require a total makeover, Sutton said, but should be revised to restore the goal of keeping school populations balanced.

"We can have a plan that has proximity, that has stability ... and there can also be an element of diversity," Sutton said. "One need not be exclusive of the others." or 919-829-8929

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