Crisis was years in the making

Staff WriterMay 6, 2007 

A judge's decision against the Wake County school system's use of mandatory year-round schools caught many by surprise Thursday, but the conditions that led to it have been building openly for more than a decade.

Wake schools turned to mandatory year-round schools to relieve pressure in a system filling with thousands of new students and constrained by a reluctance to pay for enough traditional-calendar schools.

Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr.'s ruling has eliminated the mandatory year-round option and put the state's second-largest school system into a quandary about placing students. Here's a look at five developments that put the school system in this position.

No. 1: Growth

Growth has been the story of the decade for Wake County, but school and county leaders didn't realize it would be so fast.

The county grows by an average of 98 residents a day, up 50 percent from just four years ago. Wake schools have gained more than 30,000 students in the past six years -- almost the equivalent of the entire Durham school system.

The rate of growth is expected to speed up, with 40,664 more students expected in the next five years.

School and county leaders had some warnings. A district analyst projected in 1992 that Wake would have 118,000 students by 2005. Her projection was met with skepticism, and her job was eliminated a year later. Later projections failed to accurately forecast the recent growth.

County and municipal leaders have been reluctant to slow the growth, which brings jobs and tax revenue to their budgets.

School board members say they cannot control growth. The district can't approve projects or require developers to provide land for schools.

Beverley Clark, the sharpest critic of growth on the school board, plans to introduce a resolution Tuesday urging county and municipal planners to slow the rate of growth.

The resolution didn't impress Tony Gurley, chairman of the county board of commissioners. "The county should encourage good growth, and that's what we've been doing," he said.

No. 2: Fear of tax hikes

Even as growth has taken off, money to build new schools has not kept pace.

That lag in construction money can be traced to the defeat of a $650 million school construction bond issue in 1999. Bond opponents successfully focused on an anti-tax hike message. School leaders have admitted they were overconfident it would pass based on past success.

Despite the public's vote, commissioners raised property taxes to help pay for the next two bond issues. But the vote ultimately led to Democrats losing control of the board of commissioners.

Fearing another bond election defeat, the next two school bond issues in 2000 and 2003 were limited to amounts that wouldn't require a tax increase. For instance, the $867 million requested by the school system in 2003 was cut to $550 million, largely funded by a $450 million bond issue.

The school board can request a bond referendum, but it's up to commissioners to put it on the ballot.

"[Commissioners] had a predetermined number no matter how many schools were needed," said Bill Fletcher, a school board member from 1993 to 2005.

No. 3: Locked into year-round schools

It wasn't until November that school board members and county commissioners could agree on asking voters to approve a bond issue that would result in a tax increase.

But a lingering concern that a too-large tax increase would scare off voters kept the bond issue to $970 million. It locked the district into going forward with a greater use of mandatory year-round schools. Year-round schools can hold more students than traditional schools, reducing the number of new schools needed.

Bond opponents, who later formed Wake CARES, argued that the school district should have asked for a bigger bond issue that would have paid for more traditional-calendar schools.

"All of this didn't have to happen," said Dawn Graff, a co-founder of Wake CARES, the parent group that sued the school system over mandatory year-round schools.

School board members say they felt they had no choice but to stick with the $970 million bond issue, which was based on the assumptions that 22 schools would convert to a mandatory year-round calendar in July and all new elementary and middle schools would be year-round.

"Every indication we had was that a larger bond would fail," said school board member Lori Millberg. "Where would a defeat have put us?"

No. 4: Uniting the opposition

The school system's decision to heavily target schools in Apex and western Cary for year-round conversion cemented opposition from that part of the county. Wake CARES turned it into a fight between the suburbs and neighborhoods inside the Beltline, noting that no schools there were being converted.

School board member Carol Parker said the schools inside the Beltline were excluded for legitimate reasons, such as being too small or about to undergo renovation. But Parker said she wished the school district had converted fewer schools in Apex.

No. 5: No Plan B

Despite threats of a lawsuit, the school system went forward, confident it would prevail. The school system's unwavering decision to proceed was noted by both Wake CARES and Manning.

"Prejudgment and bias is present in this case," Manning said in his ruling. "This is clear from the BOE emphatically and unequivocally refusing to change or back down from the chosen course."

When the ruling was announced, it shocked the school system, which critics complained didn't have a backup plan in place.

"Not knowing what the judgment would be, it would have been a wasted effort to guess what he would rule," Parker said.

The board is moving forward with the conversions of the 22 schools, this time on a voluntary basis. It will send letters to the parents of 30,500 students assigned to 52 year-round and modified-calendar schools asking whether they want to stay. Students would be guaranteed a seat at a traditional-calendar school if they left, but they wouldn't know at which school.

What's next?

Decisions over the next few months will have a major impact on the future of the school system.

Wake CARES is unhappy with the district's response to how it will make assignments voluntary. The group might ask Manning to intervene. If Wake loses, it might have to abandon the conversion plans.

"You can't have informed consent without knowing what all the choices are," Graff said.

At the same time the school board says it's complying with Manning's ruling, it is appealing the decision to the N.C. Court of Appeals. If Wake wins, it can require students to attend year-round schools and be able to keep up with growth for the next few years.

If Wake loses at the appellate level, look for the school board to ask voters for more money to build enough traditional-calendar schools.

It will be a referendum on what county voters value more: keeping taxes low but schools overwhelmed, or paying to build enough schools for current and future students.

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

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