Schools plan unites trio in opposition

Staff WritersMarch 19, 2007 

  • The Wake County Public School System operates year-round schools as multitrack, year-round schools. This means that the students in the school are split into four groups or "tracks." Each track follows a different schedule. The schedules are staggered so that at any given time, three of the tracks or groups are in school and one track is out on break.

    For example, the school year for students in a year-round school would begin on July 10 for students on tracks 1, 2 and 3. Students on track 4 begin the school year with their 15-day break. Students on track 4 would have their first day of school July 31 -- the same day students on track 3 begin their 15-day break.

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CORRECTION

An article on Monday's front page incorrectly characterized a meeting last month with Wake CARES leaders, state Rep. Ty Harrell, Wake County Commissioner Lindy Brown and Wake school board member Susan Parry. The meeting was open to the public.

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Kathleen Brennan's day is like that of other moms: Take care of her nearly 3-year-old son, volunteer at her 14-year-old daughter's school musical and, oh, appear on a television talk show.

It has become the norm for the three co-founders of Wake CARES, the parent group that filed a lawsuit last week to prevent the Wake County Public School System from converting 22 schools to a year-round calendar this summer.

The three Cary women have gone from being mothers of young children and school volunteers to being powerful players who could affect the course of education in Wake County.

"We'd rather be with our children and in our homes," said Dawn Graff, one of the co-founders. "But producing change isn't something that happens when you stay on the sidelines."

The change they want to create could affect where thousands of Wake students go to school this fall.

School leaders say they need to convert the schools to year-round schedules to help keep up with growth. The year-round calendar can handle more students than traditional schools because buildings are in constant use with four staggered schedules, or tracks.

But some parents say Wake could handle the growth by having schools revert to the maximum enrollments they have had over the past four years.

In the suit filed in Wake County Superior Court, the parents also alleged that requiring only some students to attend year-round schools violates the state constitution's guarantee of a "uniform system" of schools with "equal opportunities" for all students.

No trial date has been scheduled for the lawsuit. The group hopes a judge will hear its request for an injunction to block the conversions within the next week.

But school leaders said last week that if Wake CARES gets the injunction, it would be hard to come up with a way on such short notice to house the 8,000 new students expected this fall. Under state law, parents must be told by May 15 where their children will attend classes for the coming year.

Not what they planned

Suing the school system was not something the Wake CARES founders envisioned when they moved to the Triangle within the past nine years.

All three women -- Brennan, Graff and Patrice Lee -- came to Cary when their husbands relocated for job reasons. They quit their own jobs to become stay-at-home moms.

Brennan, 43, was a financial consultant. Graff, 43, was a public school music teacher. Lee, 44, had been a director at a business credit research firm and moved to the Triangle from Florida.

They were busy serving on PTAs, helping at T-ball and driving to dance lessons when school leaders announced last summer which schools they wanted to convert to a year-round calendar.

"We were lured by the promise of great schools," Graff said. "Nothing we saw on the Realtor's Web site mentioned anything about reassignment and year-round conversion or else we wouldn't have accepted the transfer [to the Triangle]."

Brennan and Lee were already friends and neighbors when they met Graff during last fall's school bond campaign.

They served as poll volunteers, unsuccessfully trying to persuade voters to reject the $970 million bond issue that funded the conversions as well as other school construction projects.

After the bond campaign, they decided to form Wake CARES, a nonprofit group, to try to block the calendar change.

They successfully lobbied county commissioners to not turn over the money approved in the bonds on the grounds that the school district wasn't providing enough alternatives to families that could not make the year-round calendar work.

But the school board voted to go ahead with the conversions and pay for them with school district funds.

"We don't have a political agenda," Lee said. "We just want educational choices for all students."

Other tacks tried

Brennan said they had tried to avoid the lawsuit, attending a private meeting last month with state Rep. Ty Harrell, Commissioner Lindy Brown and school board member Susan Parry to work out a compromise.

"We did everything we could to resolve this peacefully," Brennan said. "They just wouldn't listen."

Lee said school leaders should have put before voters a larger bond that would have given them enough schools to handle the growth.

"They sold the taxpayers short and have boxed themselves into this situation where they have alienated a certain group of people," she said.

Patti Head, chairwoman of the school board, said the conversions are still the most cost-efficient way to deal with all the new students coming to the schools.

"Every year we have some people who are going to be unhappy," Head said.

"But we have tremendous growth. We have to do it with the resources we have."

Access at issue

At the heart of the lawsuit is the claim that children assigned to year-round schools will have less access to extracurricular and co-curricular activities than those students at traditional-calendar schools.

In Brennan's case, her daughter, Beth, might not be able to attend the N.C. School of the Arts' summer session because Salem Middle School is converting.

"If you're a dancer, it's one of the best schools in the country," Brennan said.

"If it doesn't happen for her, it would be difficult for her."

Wake CARES has been raising money to cover the costs of its attorneys, Robert Hunter and Bill Peaslee. Hunter is a Greensboro lawyer who works for the state Republican Party on election law cases, and Peaslee is a Cary lawyer and a former chief of staff for the state GOP.

Brennan said it has been a grass-roots fundraising effort with everyone donating less than $1,000. The people in Wake CARES are determined to pursue the case as far as they can in court, she said.

"I can't really guess about our chances," Brennan said. "I know that we're doing the right thing."

School law experts have said that equal opportunity provisions have not generally been extended to issues such as school calendars.

Head said the school district is equally determined to contest the lawsuit.

"Do I want to be sued?" Head said. "Absolutely not. We're going to do what we have to do."

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

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