Wake opts for fewer year-rounds

The school board's 'moderate route' pushes construction bill to $1.06 billion but may ease growing dissent among parents

Staff WriterMay 17, 2006 

  • Total spending: $1.056 billion

    Estimated bond amount: $850 million to $900 million

    Estimated property tax increase: Unknown, at least 4 cents per $100 of assessed value, or a minimum of $60 a year more on a $150,000 home

    New schools: 17, including nine elementary, four middle and two high schools, $573.9 million

    Year-round effect: Sixteen to 20 elementary schools will be converted. Conversion costs put at $13.2 million.

    Also in the plan: Land and design work for 13 schools opening 2011-13 and two transportation centers -- $48.7 million; five new ninth-grade centers to help ease crowding -- $17.1 million; renovations (Cary, East Wake and Enloe high schools; East Millbrook and Martin middle schools; Lynn Road, Aversboro, Bugg, Lacy, Poe, Root, Smith and Wilburn and elementary schools) -- $242.6 million; child nutrition warehouse -- $2.9 million; technology replacements -- $37.1 million; design work on future renovations -- $8.9 million

— In an effort to compromise with parents, the Wake County school board approved a $1.06 billion construction plan Tuesday that would convert 16 to 20 elementary schools to a year-round calendar.

The original plan to convert more than 50 schools would have put most Wake elementary schools on a multitrack year-round calendar. A year-round school can hold more students than a traditional one by keeping its building in constant use.

The decision to convert fewer schools pushed the construction plan over the $1 billion mark, something the board was trying to avoid because members fear voters in the November referendum will reject a bond issue that large.

Converting 50-plus schools would have kept the plan at $998 million. But the new plan adds $58 million to build two more elementary schools and buy more classroom trailers. The board also left open the possibility of converting some middle schools to year-round.

"We're not making everybody 100 percent happy," said school board member Beverley Clark. "But we're striking a moderate route here."

The board didn't determine how many schools will be converted for the 2007-08 school term, but the members say it will be enough to gain 3,000 seats. They expect it will take 16 to 20 schools.

The board also didn't identify which schools it would convert, but conversions probably would affect growing areas such as North Raleigh and western and southwestern Wake. Administrators will announce the schools next month.

Board members said attendance at year-round schools should be as voluntary as possible. But administrators warned that many of the students at converted schools would have to stay there because there will be few open seats at nearby traditional-calendar schools.

Hope Carmichael, spokeswoman for Wake Families For School Choice, a grass-roots advocacy group, said she was pleased the board was willing to reduce the conversions. But she said the test will be how voluntary the assignments are at the converted schools.

The school board will present the plan to county commissioners at a joint meeting of the two boards today. Commissioners, who have said they'll support whatever plan they get, will decide whether to put the bond proposal to a vote in November.

The school district is looking for a bond issue to help deal with record growth that could bring 42,000 more students by 2010.

Year-round schools, school choice and property taxes have been major issues in the development of a bond referendum.

The board has been trying to keep the amount low since a poll by the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce found weak support for spending between $1.3 billion and $1.9 billion.

But the inclusion of mandatory year-round schooling united parents who have threatened to vote against any bond issue that includes mass conversion.

In year-round schools, students are placed in four "tracks," with three in school and one off at all times. Students take more frequent breaks during the school year but do not get the long summer vacation that a traditional calendar offers.

More than 250 people picketed the district's offices to oppose year-round conversions before the vote Tuesday night. A standing-room-only crowd urged the board to let them fight for a bigger bond issue. It would have taken about $180 million more to avoid any conversions to the year-round calendar.

"With 175 days to go before Election Day, give us the opportunity to pass the bond," Carmichael said. "We're the informed electorate. We're committed to educating the citizens of Wake County."

Speakers urged the board not to give in to unfavorable poll results.

"You've got to have the nerve to stand up for the children of Wake County," said Caroline Monson, a Raleigh parent. "Don't be scared of polls. Ask the county commissioners for the money you need."

No matter the plan, school supporters will have a challenge getting a bond issue passed. Carmichael said she's not sure how many opponents of mandatory year-round schooling will be satisfied with the compromise to support the bond issue.

They'll also have to deal with voters who don't like the tax increase.

A poll done last week for The News & Observer and WRAL showed that 52 percent of voters would rather avoid raising taxes no matter how many schools are converted to a mandatory year-round calendar.

It's uncertain how much the $1.06 billion plan would raise taxes. The $998 million plan eventually would have raised property taxes 3.9 cents a year per $100 of assessed value, or $58.50 more on a $150,000 home.

The N&O/WRAL poll showed 27 percent of voters supported the $998 million plan. An option to increase the plan enough to avoid any year-round conversions got 33 percent support.

The only option that received a lot of support, 64 percent, was a $625 million option that could put most elementary and middle schools on year-round schedules, high schools on split sessions and renovations on hold.

School leaders are hoping that the tax increase is small enough that voters will not want to risk going to the $625 million backup plan that commissioners would use if a bond issue didn't get voter approval.

"I don't want to get into Plan B if the bond doesn't pass, but the situation will be a lot bleaker," said board member Carol Parker.

The board made no decision on putting all high schools, most middle schools and traditional-calendar elementary schools on a new single-track year-round calendar.

The vote for the $1.06 billion construction plan was 5-3. Clark, Eleanor Goettee, Lori Millberg, Parker and Horace Tart voted yes. Rosa Gill, Ron Margiotta and Susan Parry voted no.

Staff writer T. Keung Hui can be reached at 829-4534 or khui@newsobserver.com.

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